For nanomedicine, cell sex matters

New Emory/Georgia Tech BME faculty member Vahid Serpooshan's paper on the influences of cell sex on nanoparticle Read more

Toe in the water for Emory cryo-EM structures

Congratulations to Christine Dunham and colleagues in the Department of Biochemistry for their first cryo-electron microscopy paper, recently published in the journal Read more

Biomedical career fair April 13

We will provide more information when it is available. Friday, April 13. Emory Conference Center + Hotel, 1615 Read more


Regrouping on fragile X drug strategies

Fragile X syndrome has many fascinating aspects:

* the complex inheritance pattern

* its status as the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

*the importance of the RNA-binding protein FMRP as a regulator of synaptic plasticity in neurons

*the potential applicability of drugs developed for fragile X for other forms of ASD

Readers interested in neurodevelopment disorders may want to check out this Nature Reviews Drug Discovery piece, which chews over some setbacks in clinical research on fragile X. Emory researchers have a strong connection with the drug strategies used in the recent clinical trials, but have also been working on alternative approaches. Read more

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Who regulates the regulators? Drosha

MicroRNAs have emerged as important master regulators in cells, since each one can shut down several target genes. Riding on top of the master regulators is Drosha, the RNA-cutting enzyme that initiates microRNA processing in the nucleus. Drosha and its relative Dicer have been attracting attention in cancer biology, because they are thought to be behind a phenomenon where cancerous cells can “infect” their healthy neighbors via tiny membrane-clothed packets called exosomes.

At Emory, pharmacologist Zixu Mao and colleagues recently published in Molecular Cell their findings that Drosha is regulated by stress (experimentally: heat or peroxide) through p38 MAP kinase.

Although we mention relevance to cancer above, this is one of those basic cell biology findings that may have applicability to several areas of medicine. Alterations in miRNA processing have been linked to neurodegenerative disease (Fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome, for one example). MicroRNA-packed exosomes are also being studied by biomedical engineers as potential therapeutic tools in regenerative medicine, so knowing what cellular stress does to miRNA production could be useful. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Heart, Neuro Leave a comment

Are TrkB agonists ready for translation into the clinic?

Our recent news item on Emory pathologist Keqiang Ye’s obesity-related research (Molecule from trees helps female mice only resist weight gain) understates how many disease models the proto-drug he and his colleagues have discovered, 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, can be beneficial in. We do mention that Ye’s partners in Australia and Shanghai are applying to begin phase I clinical trials with a close relative of 7,8-dihydroxyflavone in neurodegenerative diseases.

Ye’s 2010 PNAS paper covered models of Parkinson’s, stroke and seizure. Later publications take on animal models of depression, Alzheimer’s, fear learning, hearing loss and peripheral nerve injury. Although those findings begin to sound too good to be true, outside laboratories have been confirming the results (not 100 percent positive, but nothing’s perfect).  Plenty of drugs don’t make it from animal models into the clinic, but this is a solid body of work so far.




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BAI1: a very multifunctional protein

Everything is connected, especially in the brain. A protein called BAI1 involved in limiting the growth of brain tumors is also critical for spatial learning and memory, researchers have discovered.

Mice missing BAI1 have trouble learning and remembering where they have been. Because of the loss of BAI1, their neurons have changes in how they respond to electrical stimulation, and subtle alterations in parts of the cell needed for information processing.

The findings may have implications for developing treatments for neurological diseases, because BAI1 is part of a protein regulatory network neuroscientists think is connected with autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online March 9 in Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Erwin Van Meir, PhD, and his colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have been studying BAI1 (brain-specific angiogenesis inhibitor 1) for several years. Part of the BAI1 protein can stop the growth of new blood vessels, which growing cancers need. Normally highly active in the brain, the BAI1 gene is lost or silenced in brain tumors, suggesting that it acts as a tumor suppressor.

The researchers were surprised to find that the brains of mice lacking the BAI1 gene looked normal anatomically. They didn’t develop tumors any faster than normal, and they didn’t have any alterations in their blood vessels, which the researchers had anticipated based on BAI1’s role in regulating blood vessel growth. What they did have was problems with spatial memory.

Read more

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Reviving drugs with anti-stroke potential, minus side effects

Neuroprotective drugs might seem impractical or improbable right now, after two big clinical trials testing progesterone in traumatic brain injury didn’t work out. But one close observer of drug discovery is predicting a “coming boom in brain medicines.” Maybe this research, which Emory scientists have been pursuing for a long time, will be part of it.

In the 1990s, neuroscientists identified a class of drugs that showed promise in the area of stroke. NMDA receptor antagonists could limit damage to the brain in animal models of stroke. But one problem complicated testing the drugs in a clinical setting: the side effects included disorientation and hallucinations.

Now researchers have found a potential path around this obstacle. The results were published in Neuron.

“We have found neuroprotective compounds that can limit damage to the brain during ischemia associated with stroke and other brain injuries, but have minimal side effects,” says senior author Stephen Traynelis, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“These compounds are most active when the pH is lowered by biochemical processes associated with injury of the surrounding tissue. This is a proof of concept study that shows this mechanism of action could potentially be exploited clinically in several conditions, such as stroke, traumatic brain injury and subarachnoid hemorrhage.” Read more

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A structure for SorLA/LR11

The importance of the SorLA or LR11 receptor in braking Alzheimer’s was originally defined here at Emory by Jim Lah and Allan Levey’s labs. Japanese researchers recently determined the structure of SorLA and published the results in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. Their findings point toward a direct role for SorLA in binding toxic circulating beta-amyloid and transporting it to the lysosome for degradation. Hat tip to Alzforum.

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Insecticide-ADHD link, with caveats

Gary Miller’s lab at Emory was the launching pad for this study from Rutgers, published last week in the FASEB Journal, showing a potential connection between a common type of insecticide used at home and in agriculture, pyrethroids, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Read more

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Point mutation in fragile X gene reveals separable functions in brain

A new paper in PNAS from geneticist Steve Warren and colleagues illustrates the complexity of the protein disrupted in fragile X syndrome. It touches on how proposed drug therapies that address one aspect of fragile X syndrome may not be able to compensate for all of them. [For a human side of this story, read/listen to this recent NPR piece from Jon Hamilton.]

Fragile X syndrome is the most common single-gene disorder responsible for intellectual disability. Most patients with fragile X syndrome inherit it because a repetitive stretch of DNA, which is outside the protein-coding portion of the fragile X gene, is larger than usual. The expanded number of CGG repeats silences the entire gene.

However, simple point mutations affecting the fragile X protein are possible in humans as well. In the PNAS paper, Warren’s team describes what happens with a particularly revealing mutation, which allowed researchers to dissect fragile X protein’s multifaceted functions. Read more

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Effects of cocaine exposure in adolescent rodents

Much of neuroscientist Shannon Gourley’s work focuses on the idea that adolescence is a vulnerable time for the developing brain. She and graduate student Lauren DePoy recently published a paper in Frontiers in Pharmacology showing that in adolescent rodents, cocaine exposure can cause the loss of dendritic arbors in part of the brain important for decision-making.

The researchers examined neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain thought to be important for “linking reward to hedonic experience.” It was known that stimulants such as cocaine can cause the loss of dendritic spines: small protrusions that are critical for communication and interaction between neurons.

“To make an analogy, it’s like a tree losing some of its leaves,” Gourley writes. “Lauren’s work shows for the first time that if cocaine is given in adolescence, it can cause the loss of dendrite arbors – as if entire branches are being cut from the tree.”

The mice are exposed to cocaine over the course of five days in early adolescence, and then their behavior is studied in adulthood. This level of cocaine exposure leads to impairments in instrumental task reversal, a test where mice need to change their habits (which chamber they poke their noses into) to continue receiving food pellets.

The findings suggest a partial explanation for the increased risk of dependence in people who start using cocaine during adolescence.

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Going meta

Just before Thanksgiving, Slate writer Katy Waldman had a piece summarizing the growing body of evidence that linguistic metaphors reflect how we actually use our brains.

Emory neuroscientist Krish Sathian and his colleagues have been major contributors to this field (“conceptual metaphor theory”). In 2012, he and Simon Lacey published their brain imaging study, which found that when people listened to sentences involving touch metaphors (“having a rough day”), the parts of the brain involved in the sense of touch were activated. NPR’s Jon Hamilton talked about these findings with him in 2013.

At the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting, Sathian discussed his team’s ongoing work on how the brain processes metaphors that make references to body parts (head, face, arm, hand, leg, foot), as part of a nano symposium on language.

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