2B4: potential immune target for sepsis survival

Emory immunologists have identified a potential target for treatments aimed at reducing mortality in sepsis, an often deadly reaction to Read more

EHR data superior for studying sepsis

Analysis of EHR data says sepsis rates and mortality have been holding steady, contrary to what is suggested by after-the-fact Read more

New pediatric digestive/liver disease gene identified by international team

A multinational team of researchers describes a newly identified cause of congenital diarrhea and liver disease in Read more

Immunology

HIV virions attached to cell membrane

The third winner of the Best Image contest from the Postdoctoral Research Symposium, from postdoc Joshua Strauss in electron microscopist Elizabeth Wright’s lab.

Strauss explains:

Tetherin is a host cell factor that mechanically links HIV-1 to the plasma membrane. This is the first time anyone has imaged tethered HIV-1 by cryo-electron tomography. In doing so, we were able to learn about the length and arrangement of the tethers.

Note: Tetherin also studied by Paul Spearman + colleagues.Joshua_Strauss_OPE_Image

Cryo-electron tomography is an imaging technique which enables scientists to look at biological specimens in a “native-like” (frozen hydrated) state, without the chemical fixatives or heavy metal stains typically used for conventional electron microscopy.

The 3D reconstruction was manually segmented to highlight the different viral and cellular components: HIV-1 virions (lavender), mature conical-cores (aqua blue), immature Gag lattice (pink), plasma membrane (peach), rod-like tethers (sea green).

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Test of megadose vitamin D in intubated critical care patients

Whether dietary supplementation with vitamin D is beneficial, in terms of preventing disease, has been controversial. However, vitamin D has been reported to increase immune cells’ production of microbe-fighting proteins. That’s why Emory doctors have been testing whether high doses of vitamin D could be helpful for critical care patients, who need to ward off infections.

The results of a small-scale clinical trial, presented in Denver this week at the American Thoracic Society meeting, suggest that high doses of vitamin D could decrease the length of hospital stays in critically ill patients with respiratory failure. Read more

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Spotlight on liver fibrosis

For a May explainer, we’d like to spotlight liver fibrosis. Two recent papers from Emory research teams in the journal Hepatology focus on this process.

Liver fibrosis is an accumulation of scar tissue and proteins outside cells that occurs as a result of chronic damage to the liver. It involves inflammation and immune cells, as well as activation of a type of cell in the liver (hepatic stellate cells), which usually stores fat and vitamin A. Fibrosis and cirrhosis are not the same. Think of it this way: cirrhosis is the late stage of the disease, but fibrosis is how someone can get there.

The liver has a remarkable, even mythical, ability to regenerate, but there is a long list of ways that someone can injure this most vital organ. Quickly – take too much acetaminophen (the most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States). More slowly – develop a hepatitis C infection. Drink large quantities of alcohol. Or something with more subtle effects: consume a diet high in sugar, which can lead to fatty liver. The relationship between fatty liver and more serious liver disease is currently under investigation.

One of the Hepatology papers comes at liver fibrosis from a malaria angle. Patrice Mimche, Tracey Lamb and colleagues show the involvement of EphB2 tyrosine kinase, a signaling molecule not previously known to be involved in liver fibrosis.

Malaria parasites have a complex life cycle, growing in the liver and then in the blood. Lamb says an important part of her paper was the finding that in mouse malaria infection, EphB2 is activated during the blood stage on immune cells infiltrating into the liver. EphB2 (an active drug discovery target) may be acting as a tissue-specific adhesion molecule, she says.

Read more

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Risk triangle: immune gene, insecticide, Parkinson’s

Genetic variation and exposure to pesticides both appear to affect risk for Parkinson’s disease. A new study has found a connection between these two risk factors, in a way that highlights a role for immune responses in progression of the disease.

The results are published in the inaugural issue of NPJ Parkinson’s Disease.

The findings implicate a type of pesticide called pyrethroids, which are found in the majority of commercial household insecticides, and are being used more in agriculture as other insecticides are being phased out. Although pyrethroids are neurotoxic for insects, exposure to them is generally considered safe for humans by federal authorities.

The study is the first making the connection between pyrethroid exposure and genetic risk for Parkinson’s, and thus needs follow-up investigation, says co-senior author Malu Tansey, PhD, associate professor of physiology at Emory University School of Medicine.

The genetic variation the team probed, which has been previously tied to Parkinson’s in larger genome-wide association studies, was in a non-coding region of a MHC II (major histocompatibility complex class II) gene, part of a group of genes that regulate the immune system.

“We did not expect to find a specific association with pyrethroids,” Tansey says. “It was known that acute exposure to pyrethroids could lead to immune dysfunction, and that the molecules they act on can be found in immune cells; now we need to know more about how longer-term exposure affects the immune system in a way that increases risk for Parkinson’s.”

“There is already ample evidence that brain inflammation or an overactive immune system can drive the progression of Parkinson’s. What we think may be happening here is that environmental exposures may be altering some people’s immune responses, in a way that promotes chronic inflammation in the brain.”

For this study, Emory investigators led by Tansey and Jeremy Boss, PhD, chair of microbiology and immunology, teamed up with Stewart Factor, DO, head of Emory’s Comprehensive Parkinson’s Disease Center, and public health researchers from UCLA led by Beate Ritz, MD, PhD. The first author of the paper is MD/PhD student George T. Kannarkat.

The UCLA researchers used a California state geographical database covering 30 years of pesticide use in agriculture. They defined exposure based on proximity (someone’s work and home addresses), but did not measure levels of pesticides in the body. Pyrethroids are thought to decay relatively quickly, especially in sunlight, with half-lives in soil of days to weeks. Read more

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Low doses of imatinib can stimulate innate immunity

Low doses of the anti-cancer drug imatinib can spur the bone marrow to produce more innate immune cells to fight against bacterial infections, Emory and Winship Cancer Institute researchers have found.

The results were published this week in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

The findings suggest imatinib, known commercially as Gleevec, or related drugs could help doctors treat a wide variety of infections, including those that are resistant to antibiotics, or in patients who have weakened immune systems. The research was performed in mice and on human bone marrow cells in vitro, but provides information on how to dose imatinib for new clinical applications.

“We think that low doses of imatinib are mimicking ‘emergency hematopoiesis,’ a normal early response to infection,” says senior author Daniel Kalman, PhD, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

Imatinib, is an example of a “targeted therapy” against certain types of cancer. It blocks tyrosine kinase enzymes, which are dysregulated in cancers such as chronic myelogenous leukemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumors.

Imatinib also inhibits normal forms of these enzymes that are found in healthy cells. Several pathogens – both bacteria and viruses – exploit these enzymes as they transit into, through, or out of human cells. Researchers have previously found that imatinib or related drugs can inhibit infection of cells by pathogens that are very different from each other, including tuberculosis bacteria and Ebola virus. Read more

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Potential HIV drugs hit three targets at once

Drug discovery veteran Dennis Liotta and his team continue to look for ways to fight against HIV. Working with pharmaceutical industry colleagues, he and graduate student Anthony Prosser have discovered compounds that are active against three different targets: immune cells’ entry gates for the virus (CCR5 and CXCR4), and the replication enzyme reverse transcriptase. That’s like one arrow hitting three bulls eyes. An advantage for these compounds: it could be less likely for viral resistance to develop.

For more, please go to the American Chemical Society — there will be a press conference from the ACS meeting in Denver on Monday, and live YouTube.

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Immune ‘traffic jam’ from viral infection

Several drugs now used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases are actually repurposed tools derived from the immune system. One of the ways these “therapeutic antibodies” work is to grab onto malignant or inflammatory cells and escort them to their doom.

Emory researchers have found that in a mouse model of chronic viral infection, a kind of traffic pileup inside the body limits how effective therapeutic antibodies can be.

The results, published this week in Immunity, have implications for biotechnology researchers who continue to refine antibodies for therapeutic purposes, as well as bolster our understanding of how chronic viral infections impair the immune system.

Researchers led by Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Emory Vaccine Center, were studying mice infected by LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus). They injected several antibodies with the goal of removing various types of immune cells from the mice.  One end of the antibody molecule is supposed to bind the target cell, while another acts as a flag for other cells to get rid of the target cell.

However, during a chronic LCMV infection, the 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 having the effect the scientists wanted, which was to deplete their target cells.

Excessive amounts of immune complexes appear to be “clogging” the Fc gamma receptors that immune cells would use to grab the antibodies bound to the target cell, says postdoctoral fellow Andreas Wieland, PhD, first author of the Immunity paper. That these immune complexes form was not news; but how much they interfere with other antibodies was, Wieland says. Fc gamma receptors were already known to be important for antibodies to be effective against influenza and HIV. Read more

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General-heavy army disastrous in immune battle

Immunologists have identified two big groups of T cells: “helper” CD4+ cells and “killer” CD8+ cells.* The helper cells can produce immune regulatory molecules and promote antibody responses, while the killer cells recognize and destroy virally-infected cells.

A vaccine against a virus that stimulates only helper CD4+ cells leads to uncontrolled lethal inflammation in mice once the animals are challenged with the virus, a recent paper in Science shows. Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed is a co-author.

Senior author Dan Barouch, from Harvard/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, tells The Scientist that CD4+ cells are like generals directing the battle of the immune system and “if you just have strategic generals and no soldiers, it turns out to be worse than having no army at all.” Rebalancing the system with antiviral CD8+ T cells or antibodies helps limit the problems.

The findings mesh with work by Yerkes investigators [Guido Silvestri and colleagues] suggesting that HIV vaccines that boost CD4+ cells in gateway mucosal tissues lead to higher rates of infection. In both cases, the lesson is: having more helper CD4+ T cells around actually does not help. Read more

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Carbohydrates not silent to immune system

Donor antibodies, administered intravenously or subcutaneously, make up a commercial product used to treat both immunodeficiencies and inflammatory or auto-immune diseases.

These preparations contain a complex mix of antibodies against glycans, the carbohydrate molecules on the outsides of cells, a Jan. 7 paper in Science Translational Medicine reveals.

At first glance, the findings are remarkable because:

A. Immunologists have long thought that carbohydrates, by themselves, are not good at provoking the immune system. (The assumption was: you need some protein for antigen presentation and getting T cells interested.) The data shows exceptions to the rule.

B. Some of the antibodies react against human carbohydrate structures. Instead of attacking them in an auto-immune fashion, they may actually be blocking viruses or bacteria from using those structures as gateways to infection.

The lab of Stephan von Gunten at the University of Bern collaborated with the National Center for Functional Glycomics led by biochemists Rick Cummings and David Smith at Emory to analyze the spectrum of carbohydrate structures bound by donor antibodies. Read more

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Max Cooper celebrated in Nature for 50 yrs of B cells

Emory’s Max Cooper was celebrated this week in Nature for his discovery of B cells in the 1960s, while working with Robert Good at the University of Minnesota.

Cooper in Good’s laboratory in the 1960s (source: National Library of Medicine)

B cells are immune cells that display antibodies on their surfaces, and can become antibody-secreting plasma cells. Without B cells: no antibodies to protect us against bacteria and viruses. Where B cells come from, and how they can develop such a broad repertoire of antibody tools, was a major puzzle of 20th century immunology, which Cooper contributed to solving. (See the Nature piece to learn why the “B” comes from the name of an organ in chickens.)

The authors did not mention that Cooper is now at Emory studying lampreys’ immune systems, which are curiously different from those of mammals. The similarities and differences provide insights into the evolution of our immune systems. In addition, scientists here are exploring whether lamprey’s antibody-like molecules might be turned into anticancer drugs.

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