‘Genetic doppelgangers:’ Emory research provides insight into two neurological puzzles

An international team led by Emory scientists has gained insight into the pathological mechanisms behind two devastating neurodegenerative diseases. The scientists compared the most common inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD) with a rarer disease called spinocerebellar ataxia type 36 (SCA 36). Both of the diseases are caused by abnormally expanded and strikingly similar DNA repeats. However, ALS progresses quickly, typically killing patients within a year or two, while the disease Read more

Emory launches study on COVID-19 immune responses

Emory University researchers are taking part in a multi-site study across the United States to track the immune responses of people hospitalized with COVID-19 that will help inform how the disease progresses and potentially identify new ways to treat it.  The study is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. The study – called Immunophenotyping Assessment in a COVID-19 Cohort (IMPACC) – launched Friday. Read more

Marcus Lab researchers make key cancer discovery

A new discovery by Emory researchers in certain lung cancer patients could help improve patient outcomes before the cancer metastasizes. The researchers in the renowned Marcus Laboratory identified that highly invasive leader cells have a specific cluster of mutations that are also found in non-small cell lung cancer patients. Leader cells play a dominant role in tumor progression, and the researchers discovered that patients with the mutations experienced poorer survival rates. The findings mark the first Read more

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Pancreatic cancer: Front and center

With the sad news today of the death of actor Patrick Swayze, the public is again focused on pancreatic cancer and searching for more information on this aggressive cancer.

Recently, David Kooby, MD, Emory Winship Cancer Institute, and an assistant professor, Department of Surgical Oncology, authored a blog for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Doctor Is In” on this topic.

Emory Winship Cancer Institute

Emory Winship Cancer Institute

The following is an excerpt from the blog:

Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive malignancy that begins in the cells of the duct (or tube) running along the length of the pancreas. Each year about 42,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed and more than 35,000 people die from this cancer. A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is usually made after discovery of a mass or a dilated duct in the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose. Patients often come in for a doctor’s visit with non-specific symptoms such as abdominal or back pain or weight loss. Some patients will develop jaundice (yellowing of the skin) as a result of the tumor blocking the duct draining bile from the liver

No one knows the exact causes of pancreatic cancer, although some risk factors are known through research that has been done.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the following are risk factors for development of pancreatic cancer:

  • Age — The likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most pancreatic cancers occur in people over the age of 60.
  • Smoking — Cigarette smokers are two or three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes mellitus — Pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes than in people who do not.
  • Being male — More men than women are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
  • Being African-American — African-Americans are more likely than Asians, Hispanics or whites to get pancreatic cancer.
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Healthy aging on the Emory front

Emory’s Center for Health and Aging is addressing health care issues affecting the rapidly growing senior population in the United States through research, clinical care, community outreach and education.

One of the greatest challenges now facing the health care system in the United States is the rapid growth of the numbers of aging adults. It will have an unprecedented impact on the delivery of medical care, including supply of and demand for health care workers.

It is expected that the supply of health care providers may decrease at a time huge numbers of workers retire or reduce their working hours. And older adults consume a disproportionate share of American health care services, resulting in greater demand for services.

There are compelling demographic reasons to study aging. According to U.S. census records, a wave of 2.7 million Americans will turn 65 by 2011, and each succeeding year the swell gets higher until it peaks in 2025 with 4.2 million new 65-year-olds. By 2030, when the youngest boomers have become seniors, the number of Americans 65 and older is expected to be more than 70 million – nearly twice as many as in 2005, according to a report by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine

Ted Johnson, MD

Ted Johnson, MD, MPH

Led by Theodore (Ted) Johnson II, MD, MPH, the Center benefits from well-established and successful programs in clinical care, aging research and education at Emory’s Wesley Woods Center, one of the nation’s few campuses devoted to the health and well being of older adults.

Wesley Woods is one of the nation’s most comprehensive centers for aging-related research, care and quality of life, serving more than 30,000 elderly and chronically ill patients each year through outpatient clinics, a hospital, skilled nursing care facility and residential retirement facility. In addition, Emory is affiliated with the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which has an extensive array of geriatric clinical, research and training programs.

The health care implications for seniors in Georgia and the U.S. are tremendous, according to Johnson. He says that the sheer numbers of older adults will place strains on our healthcare system and the family and professional caregivers who help them.

Johnson,who heads Emory’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology, notes that it’s the cumulative effect of that surge – plus the fact that people are living far longer than ever before – that poses a looming crisis for the health care system.

For a glimpse of aging care and research at Emory: dementia research, Alzheimer’s DETECT device, diagnosing memory loss, preventing heart failure, disease prevention through nutrition, aging and fitness, and more about health initiatives at Emory Healthcare.

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Manage stress to your advantage

Recently Charles Raison, MD, assistant professor, Emory Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, wrote a blog for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on stress. As clinical director of the Emory Mind-Body Program and director of the Behavioral Immunology Program, he has been studying stress.

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Raison says stress is everywhere today, both in our private and public lives, but also relentlessly in print, with discussion after discussion regarding what it is and what can be done to ease it.

He notes that you should think of stress like a sandwich. One trick for dealing with stress is to try to stay in the middle of the stress sandwich in the meat of life – the optimal challenge. The basic idea, he comments, is that you see what’s in front of you as a challenge, neither boring nor threatening, difficult enough to keep you fully engaged, easy enough for you to accomplish your goals.

You can read more by Raison by visiting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Doctor Is In blog online.

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New tool in the fight for scarce donor organs

With so many men, women and children desperately awaiting a life-saving donor liver through traditional means – those donated by a deceased individual – transplant surgeons at Emory University Hospital looked for ways to improve the odds. transplantcenterlogo

Recently, Emory doctors were the first in Georgia to perform a rare “domino” liver transplant procedure – in effect saving two lives with one donor organ. The doctors had a opportunity to discuss the procedure at a media briefing held a few days ago.

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) says there are currently more than 16,000 Americans currently awaiting a liver transplant.

Domino liver transplant procedures are aptly named for the sequential, one-after-the-other nature of the process in which a viable liver from a deceased donor is transplanted into the first recipient, and the first recipient’s organ is then transplanted into a second recipient. The procedure is still extremely unusual, with fewer than 100 done in the United States since the first in 1996.

According to Stuart Knechtle, MD, professor of surgery in the Emory School of Medicine and director of the Emory liver transplant program, domino transplants are a rare but effective way of overcoming the national shortage of organs available for transplant. In most cases of domino liver transplants, one of the donated livers is transplanted from a patient with another type of disorder that does not affect the organ recipient.

“This successful domino liver transplant is something that simply does not start or end in a hospital operating room,” says Knechtle.

Liver recipient Bob Massie discusses his “miracle.”

Liver recipient Jean Handler discusses being “thankful and shocked.”

“This procedure, which saved two lives,” says Knechtle, “and will impact both families for many years to come, is the end result of a long chain of special events, starting with the decision by one person to donate the gift of life upon his untimely demise, which in turn allowed the recipient of that person’s organ to then donate hers to another patient.”

You can view the full briefing at this web site.

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Biomaterials used for hips and knees

Orthopaedics is a constantly evolving subspecialty where medical technology and research drives the development of new products used for reconstruction of body parts, specifically for hip and knee replacements.

Emory has been on the forefront of investigating and using three materials for these replacements: ceramic on ceramic surfaces, metal on metal surfaces, or highly cross-linked polyethylene. These newer biomaterials can reduce wear rates by over 99 percent compared to previous materials, thus enhancing the life of the new hip or knee.

Adult reconstruction or hip and knee arthritis surgery delivers quality outcomes that make a dramatic improvement in a patient’s quality of life. At the first post-operative visit, patients are more comfortable, have less pain and are even more functional than before their surgery.

Orthopeadic surgeon James R. Roberson, MD, chairman, Department of Orthopaedics in Emory School of Medicine, and professor of orthopaedic surgery specializes in adult reconstructive surgery of the hip and knee.

Roberson has been involved in clinical research for more than 20 years to solve difficult problems of the arthritic hip and knee. He pioneered a minimally invasive surgery technique for knee replacement that allows him to use smaller incisions in certain patients who have uncomplicated conditions.

Visit Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Center and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital to learn more about orthopaedic services and watch a video about the hospital.

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Pediatric liver disease on the rise

Miriam Vos, MD with patient.

Miriam Vos, MD with patient.

Miriam Vos, MD treats a growing number of children with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Yet little research has been conducted into the development of the illness. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in children, which often is associated with obesity, occurs when fat deposits itself in the liver. It eventually can lead to inflammation, cirrhosis and even liver failure.

In the hopes of preventing the disease in children, Vos, a pediatric hepatologist at Emory University School of Medicine

and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, is conducting research into the origins of this disorder in children. She suspects a diet high in sugar and too little exercise are tied to its onset.

In fact, a recent study led by Vos found that Americans are getting more than 10 percent of their daily calories from fructose, used mainly in sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods.

The study analyzed the amount and sources of dietary fructose consumption among U.S. children and adults from 1988 to 1994. The researchers found that U.S. children and adults consumed 54.7 grams of fructose per day, an almost 50 percent increase from a national study sample conducted in 1977-1978.

Fructose occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables, however, it is added to many processed foods as table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup.

Vos has written a book aimed at helping children and their families shed pounds and achieve better nutrition through changes in lifestyle and diet.

To hear Vos’s own words about nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in children, listen to Emory University’s Sound Science podcast.

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Heated, targeted chemotherapy helps abdominal cancers

Cancer of the colon, ovaries, appendix or other organs within the abdomen often spreads to the lining of the abdominal cavity. Experts call this condition peritoneal surface malignancy. Until recently, treatment options for this form of cancer only provided relief from symptoms.

Emory University Hospital is one of a few facilities nationwide to utilize a new combination therapy to slow or prevent recurrence of this cancer. Hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemoperfusion (HIPEC) is a procedure done immediately following surgery that delivers heated chemotherapy directly into the abdominal cavity where it can penetrate cancerous tissue. Heat at 42 C (107 F) destroys cancer cells and enhances the power of chemotherapy.

The term “intraperitoneal” means that the treatment is delivered to the abdominal cavity. “Hyperthermic chemoperfusion” means that the solution containing chemotherapy is heated to a temperature greater than normal body temperature.

Charles Staley, MD, chief of surgical oncology at the Emory Winship Cancer Institute, says by bathing the abdomen with heated chemotherapy immediately following surgery doctors can administer a higher dose of medication than would normally be tolerated by a patient if given intravenously – the traditional way chemotherapy is administered.

During surgery, Staley removes all visible tumors throughout the abdomen, a procedure known as cytoreductive surgery. Following surgery, while still in the operating room, Staley administers the new treatment, which takes about two hours. Recent studies show improved prognosis in patients treated with HIPEC after the cytoreductive surgery.

Illustration of heated chemo therapy

Illustration of heated, targeted chemotherapy

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New heart valve replacement option under study

A new option for heart valve replacement is under study at Emory University Hospital. Cardiologists at the Emory Heart & Vascular Center are conducting groundbreaking research to study a non-surgical treatment option for patients with severe aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve opening that affects tens of thousands of people each year. It is most common among elderly patients over 70 years of age, but can surface earlier in life in those with rheumatic heart disease or congenital abnormalities of the valve. Patients often develop symptoms of chest pain, shortness of breath, fainting spells and heart failure.

Peter Block, MD

Peter Block, MD

Emory cardiologists, led by Peter Block, MD, FACC, professor of medicine, Emory School of Medicine, are performing percutaneous aortic valve replacement as part of a clinical trial, comparing this procedure with traditional, open-heart surgery or medical therapy in high-risk patients with aortic stenosis. It provides a new way for doctors to treat patients who are too ill or frail to endure the traditional surgical approach. So far, 115 people have participated in the phase II clinical trial.

In this new procedure, doctors create a small incision in the groin or chest wall and then feed a wire mesh valve through a catheter and place it where the new valve is needed. The standard therapy, which has been used to treat aortic stenosis for more than 30 years, is to remove the diseased valve through open-heart surgery.

Block says the results seen so far in this clinical trial show great promise for this procedure. He says this is especially important since tens of thousands of Americans are diagnosed with failing valves each year and that number is expected to increase substantially in the coming years as baby boomers pass the age of 70.

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Childhood cancer treatment may raise diabetes risk

Cancer survivors who got radiation treatments as children have nearly twice the risk of developing diabetes as adults. That’s according to a study led by Emory and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta pediatric oncologist Lillian R. Meacham, MD.

Lillian Meacham, MD

Lillian Meacham, MD

The study, published in the August 10/24 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, compared rates of diabetes in nearly 8,600 childhood cancer survivors diagnosed between 1970 and 1986, and nearly 3,000 of their siblings who did not have cancer.

Children who were treated with total body radiation or abdominal radiation to fight off cancer appear to have higher diabetes risks later in life, regardless of whether they exercise regularly or maintain a normal weight.

After adjusting for other risk factors, including body mass index – a ratio of height and weight – Meacham and team found that childhood cancer survivors overall were 1.8 times more likely to have diabetes.

And the more radiation that was used, the greater the diabetes risk. For those treated with total body radiation — a treatment often used before bone marrow transplants to treat childhood leukemia — the diabetes risk was more than seven times greater.

More study is needed to understand how radiation could promote diabetes in cancer survivors, notes Meacham.

She says it is imperative that clinicians recognize this risk, screen for diabetes and pre-diabetes when appropriate, and approach survivors with aggressive risk-reducing strategies.

Meacham is a professor of pediatrics in the Emory School of Medicine and medical director of the Cancer Survivor Program with the AFLAC Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Services, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

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Relocating central vision

Susan Primo, MD

Susan Primo, MD

The patients seen by Emory low vision specialist Susan Primo, OD, MPH, have already exhausted most of their treatment options. They’ve completed medication regimens or had surgery to slow advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness in the elderly. But still they don’t see well.

That’s where Primo comes in. At the Emory Eye Center, she’s studying whether behavioral modifications can lead to a change in brain activity to maximize use of remaining vision.

In macular degeneration, the macula—a layer of tissue on the inside back wall of the eyeball—gradually deteriorates. That delicate tissue is responsible for visual acuity, particularly in the center of the retina. Central vision is needed for seeing small and vivid details such as words on a page or the color of a traffic light, which means it is vital for common daily tasks such as reading or driving.

In more than two decades of working with patients who are visually impaired, Primo realized that people typically use their peripheral vision to compensate for loss in central vision. Studies have shown that people with progressive central vision loss compensate by spontaneously adopting a preferred retinal location (PRL) that takes over responsibility for visual clarity.

Normal vision

Normal vision

Vision with macular degeneration

But Primo and Georgia Tech psychologist Eric Schumacher wanted to know whether using these peripheral regions causes a change in how the brain is organized. Armed with Schumacher’s expertise in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and Primo’s clinical experience, the researchers did indeed discover continued activity in the part of the brain that maps to the macula. The brain scans of people with AMD who had developed their peripheral vision showed substantially more activity than those of people who had not developed a PRL. Their study appeared in the December 2008 edition of Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.

In a current study, Primo and Schumacher are exploring whether occupational training and biofeedback can help people with AMD focus on using good retinal cells and in turn speed up the brain’s reorganization.

“Although others have tried to study this reorganization of macular degeneration before, no one, to our knowledge, has tried to influence it,” says Primo. “Yet it’s important to begin to come up with therapies, treatments, and technology to help patients begin to use their residual vision faster and better than they could before.”

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