‘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

Neuro

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 Structure.

The paper solves the structure of a bacterial ribosome bound to a messenger RNA containing a loop that regulates translation. This process is important for the study of several neurological diseases such as fragile X syndrome, for example.

Christine Dunham, PhD

Dunham writes: “We are focusing on establishing this in bacteria to understand frameshifting and protein folding as a consequence of codon preference. We will then build up our knowledge to potentially study eukaryotic translational control.”

The paper neatly links up with two Nobel Prizes: the 2017 Chemistry prize for cryo-electron microscopy and the 2009 Chemistry prize for ribosome structure, awarded in part to Dunham’s mentor Venki Ramakrishnan. Also, see this 2015 feature from Nature’s Ewen Callaway outlining how cryo-EM is a must have for structural biologists wanting to probe large molecules that are difficult to crystallize.

Construction now underway in the Biochemistry Connector will allow installation of microscopes (worth $6 million) necessary for Dunham and others to do cryo-EM here at Emory, although she advises that it will be several months until they are photo-op ready. For the Structure paper, Dunham collaborated with George Skiniotis at University of Michigan; he recently moved to Stanford. Read more

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Biomedical career fair April 13

We learned about this from Tami Hutto at BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) and Maria Thacker Goethe at Georgia Bio . We will provide more information when it is available. Friday, April 13. Emory Conference Center + Hotel, 1615 Clifton.

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Four hot projects at Emory in 2017

Once activated by cancer immunotherapy drugs, T cells still need fuel (CD28)

— Rafi Ahmed’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center. Also see T cell revival predicts lung cancer outcomes. At Thursday’s Winship symposium on cancer immunotherapy, Rafi said the name of the game is now combinations, with an especially good one being PD-1 inhibitors plus IL2.

Pilot study shows direct amygdala stimulation can enhance human memory

— Cory Inman, Joe Manns, Jon Willie. Effects being optimized, see SFN abstract.

Immune responses of five returning travelers infected by Zika virus

— Lilin Lai, Mark Mulligan. Covered here, Emory Hope Clinic and Baylor have data from more patients.

Frog slime kills flu virus

— Joshy Jacob’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center. A follow-up peptide with a name referencing Star Wars is coming.

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Shaking up thermostable proteins

Imagine a shaker table, where kids can assemble a structure out of LEGO bricks and then subject it to a simulated earthquake. The objective is to design the most stable structure.

Biochemists face a similar task when they are attempting to design thermostable proteins, with heat analogous to shaking. Thermostable proteins, which do not become unfolded/denatured at high temperatures, are valuable for industrial processes.

Now imagine that these stable structures have to also perform a function. This is the two-part challenge of designing thermostable proteins. They have to maintain their physical structure, and continue to perform their function adequately, all at high temperatures. 

Eric Ortlund and colleagues, working with Eric Gaucher at Georgia Tech*, have a new paper published in Structure, in which they examine different ways to achieve this goal in a component of the protein synthesis machinery, EF-Tu. This protein exists in both mesophilic bacteria, which live at around human body temperature, and thermophilic organisms (think: hot springs).

A previous analysis by Gaucher used the ASR technique (ancestral sequence reconstruction) to resurrect ancient, extinct EF-Tus and characterize them. It was shown that that ancestral EF-Tus were thermostable and functional. EF-Tu’s thermostability declined along with the environmental temperature; ancestral bacteria started off living in hot environments and those environments cooled off over millions of years.

In the new paper, Ortlund and first author Denise Okafor show that stable proteins generated by protein engineering methods do not always retain their functional capabilities. However, the ASR technique has a unique advantage, Ortlund says. By accounting for the evolutionary history of the protein, it preserves the natural motions required for normal protein function. Their results suggest that ASR could be used to engineer thermostability in other proteins besides EF-Tu.

*Gaucher recently moved to Georgia State.

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A push for reproducibility in biomedical research

Editor’s note: guest post from Neuroscience graduate student Erica Landis.

Neuroscience graduate student Erica Landis

Evidence is increasing that lack of reproducibility, whatever the cause, is a systemic problem in biomedical science. While institutions like the NIH and concerned journal editors are making efforts to implement more stringent requirements for rigorous and reproducible research, scientists themselves must make conscious efforts to avoid common pitfalls of scientific research. Here at Emory, several scientists are making greater efforts to push forward to improve scientific research and combat what is being called “the reproducibility crisis.”

In 2012, C. Glenn Begley, then a scientist with the pharmaceutical company Amgen, published a commentary in Nature on his growing concern for the reproducibility of preclinical research. Begley and his colleagues had attempted to replicate 53 published studies they identified as relevant to their own research into potential pharmaceuticals. They found that only 6 of the 53 publications could be replicated; even with help from the original authors. Similar studies have consistently found that greater than 50 percent of published studies could not be replicated. This sparked a period of great concern and questioning for scientists. It seemed to Begley and others that experimenter bias, carelessness, poor understanding of statistics, and the career-dependent scramble to publish contributes to a misuse of the scientific method. These factors contribute to what is now called the reproducibility crisis. In April 2017, Richard Harris published Rigor Mortis, a survey of the problem in preclinical research, which has kept the conversation going and left many wondering what the best solution to these issues could be. To combat the reproducibility crisis, Harris argues that funding agencies, journal editors and reviewers, research institutions, and scientists themselves all have a role to play.

Read more

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New pediatric digestive/liver disease gene identified by international team

In a study published this month in Hepatology, a multinational team of researchers describes a newly identified cause of congenital diarrhea and liver disease in children.

The rare disorder is characterized by significant diarrhea beginning soon after birth, low serum levels of fat-soluble vitamins and evidence of liver disease. Despite continued symptoms, with medical support, the children grow and develop normally, at least to the age of 12.

From left to right: Mutaz Sultan, Orly Elpeleg and Paul Dawson, representing three collaborating institutions.

Researchers from Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, working with colleagues from Makassed Hospital, Al-Quds University and Hadassah Medical Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem studied a family with two children from the Palestinian territories who suffer from the disorder.

The team found that both children had inherited a mutation in a gene responsible for the transport of bile acids, which facilitate the digestion and absorption of dietary fats and fat-soluble vitamins. Although mutations had been identified in other genes important for the recycling of bile acids, this is the first report in humans of disease-associated defects in this gene, called Organic Solute Transporter-beta (SLC51B).

Almost 20 years ago, pediatric GI & hepatology researcher Paul Dawson, PhD, and colleagues identified mutations in another bile acid transporter gene (ASBT; SLC10A2) that caused congenital bile acid diarrhea.

“Even at that time, we knew that there were patients with similar symptoms that did not carry mutations in ASBT. But the genetic cause remained a mystery.” Dawson says. “What’s distinctive about this report is that these patients also have features of liver disease, which was not observed in previously described congenital bile acid diarrhea patients.” Read more

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IMSD program nurtures young scientists

Guest post from Megan McCall, who works at Winship Cancer Institute. Thanks Megan!

On a Thursday afternoon this past semester, a diverse group of 50 students were listening to a lecture on the art of storytelling by Eladio Abreu, a lecturer in the Biology department. This was an unusual topic for these students, but they sat enrapt, not distracted by cell phones or laptops.

Eladio Abreu, PhD

The weekly seminar was part of the Emory Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) program, aimed at the professional development of undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields. What sets this program apart is its commitment to increase diversity in the biological, biomedical and behavioral sciences by nurturing students who may be underrepresented in these fields. IMSD’s associate director Amanda James says the program includes some of Emory’s strongest students.

The two-year, NIH-funded research program has three main goals: preparing undergraduate students for doctoral programs in STEM fields, nurturing graduate students during their matriculation into Emory’s Ph.D. programs and increasing diversity through mentoring. They accomplish these goals by connecting undergraduates and graduates through mentorship, seminars, and career coaching, says Keith Wilkinson, IMSD director and vice-chair of the Department of Biochemistry.

(from left) Lina Jowhar, Max Cornely, Chayla Vazquez, and Jamie Guillen at an Initiative to Maximize Student development meeting.

This meeting included updates from students on their summer research plans. Answers ranged from epidemiology research with a children’s hospital in Philadelphia, to influenza research at Johns Hopkins. In addition to weekly seminars, IMSD offers classes aimed at increasing success post-graduation, workshops for career development, and pathways to funded research, a rare commodity for undergraduates. Students who can’t do funded research may use resources that IMSD offers to find other opportunities.

Lina Jowhar is an undergraduate who started the program in her third year at Emory. She is engaged in research on cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder of the lungs, and she values the weekly meetings, particularly Abreu’s lecture on the art of storytelling. “I love his interactive teaching style,” she says. “He was comfortable letting us know that he changed the examples in his PowerPoint to include Biggie and Tupac which showed me how important it is to connect with your audience.” Read more

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NGLY1 update

Emory Medicine readers may remember the Stinchcombs, a Georgia family caring for two daughters with a genetic neurological/developmental disorder called NGLY1 deficiency. We found their efforts to care for their daughters inspiring.

The rapid discovery of several children with NGLY1 deficiency, facilitated by social media, has led to a wave of research. Two recent papers represent advances toward finding treatments.

In PLOS Genetics, Japanese scientists showed that deleting the ENGase gene can partially rescue problems created by NGLY1 deficiency in a mouse model (RIKEN press release). That implies drugs that inhibit the ENGase enzyme might have similar positive effects.

Scientists knew that the NGLY1 enzyme removes chains of sugars from misfolded proteins that are stalled in cells’ production pipeline. ENGase is another enzyme that acts on those sugar chains, and its absence compensates for the lack of NGLY1. Read more

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March for Science ATL: photos

Emory scientists and supporters of science were out in substantial numbers Saturday at the March for Science Atlanta in Candler Park.

March organizers, many of whom came from the Emory research community, say they want to continue their advocacy momentum and community-building after the event’s success. Check out the web site “Science Marches On” for post-march activities. The organizers have estimated that somewhere around 8,000 people participated in Saturday’s march, based on aerial drone footage and Atlanta Police estimates.

Marchers Jarred Whitlock, Bethany Whitlock, Erica Werner, Victor Faundez, and Chelsea Lee (left to right)

Several issues propelled the Marches for Science around the world: proposed research funding reductions, skepticism on specific issues such as climate change or vaccines, and attention on diversity in science. Some Emory folks such as autism geneticist/communicator Chris Gunter and oncology nursing leader Deborah Bruner were in Washington DC for the March for Science there.

Here in Atlanta, marchers had a variety of colorful costumes and signs, with messages ranging from the blunt to the subtle.  The crowds enjoyed sunny weather and pre-march entertainment from the punk rock band Leucine Zipper and the Zinc Fingers.

Former Emory neuroscience postdoc Alison Bernstein, who blogs as “Mommy PhD” and is now an assistant professor at Michigan State, was one of the first speakers, describing how some vaccine skeptics have embraced unproven and possibly dangerous treatments for conditions such as eczema.

Emory virologist Anice Lowen was quoted in this WABE story.

Read more

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How race + TBI experience affect views of informed consent

The upcoming HBO movie of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds us that biomedical research has a complex legacy, when it comes to informed consent and people of color.

A paper from Emory investigators, published in AJOB Empirical Bioethicstouches on related current issues. The paper examines how race and close experience with traumatic brain injury affect study participants’ views of informed consent in clinical research.

This emerged from a study of community consultation for EFIC (exception from informed consent), in connection with a nationwide clinical trial of progesterone for traumatic brain injury (TBI). EFIC describes clinical research performed when the normal process of obtaining patients’ informed consent is not possible, because of emergency conditions such as seizures or TBI. Before such studies can be undertaken, the FDA calls for protective procedures and community consultation.

In this case, researchers surveyed 2612 people at 12 sites involved in the TBI study. The survey asked about attitudes toward the EFIC aspects of the study and also asked if they had personal experience with traumatic brain injury – either themselves or someone close to them. How that personal connection affected their responses was influenced by race.

Key paragraph from discussion:

Among white participants, increased levels of acceptance of EFIC were found among those with any connections to TBI. On the other hand, among participants identifying as black or other nonwhite races, there was decreased acceptance of EFIC enrollment among TBI patients and no increase in acceptance among those with a family member/loved one with TBI. The fact that black and white participants with no personal TBI experience or with a more distant connection to TBI had similar acceptance rates suggests that baseline acceptance of EFIC among these two groups is fairly similar and that the experience with the condition itself plays a role in driving the observed differences…

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