Mysterious DNA modification important in fly brain

Drosophila, despite being a useful genetic model of development, have very little DNA methylation on C. What they do have is methylation on A (technically, N6-methyladenine), although little was known about what this modification did for Read more

Where it hurts matters in the gut

What part of the intestine is problematic matters more than inflammatory bowel disease subtype (Crohn’s vs ulcerative colitis), when it comes to genetic activity signatures in pediatric Read more

Overcoming cisplatin resistance

Cisplatin was known to damage DNA and to unleash reactive oxygen species, but the interaction between cisplatin and Mek1/cRaf had not been observed Read more

Immunology

Wound-healing intestinal bacteria: like shrubs after a forest fire

In injured mouse intestines, specific types of bacteria step forward to promote healing, Emory scientists have found. One oxygen-shy type of bacteria that grows in the wound-healing environment, Akkermansia muciniphila, has already attracted attention for its relative scarcity in both animal and human obesity.

NMicro

An intestinal wound brings bacteria (red) into contact with epithelial cells (green). The bacteria can provide signals that promote healing, if they are the right kind.

The findings emphasize how the intestinal microbiome changes locally in response to injury and even helps repair breaches. The researchers suggest that some of these microbes could be exploited as treatments for conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.

The results were published on January 27 in Nature Microbiology. Researchers took samples of DNA from the colon tissue of mice after they underwent colon biopsies. They used DNA sequencing to determine what types of bacteria were present.

“This is a situation resembling recovery after a forest fire,” says Andrew Neish, MD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. “Once the trees are gone, there is an orderly succession of grasses and shrubs, before the reconstitution of the mature forest. Similarly, in the damaged gut, we see that certain kinds of bacteria bloom, contribute to wound healing, and then later dissipate as the wound repairs.” Read more

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Rescuing existing antibiotics with adjuvants

One of the speakers at Thursday’s Antibiotic Resistance Center symposium, Gerald Wright from McMaster University, made the case for fighting antibiotic resistance by combining known antibiotics with non-antibiotic drugs that are used to treat other conditions, which he called adjuvants.

As an example, he cited this paper, in which his lab showed that loperamide, known commercially as the anti-diarrheal Immodium, can make bacteria sensitive to tetracycline-type antibiotics.

Wright said that other commercial drugs and compounds in pharmaceutical companies’ libraries could have similar synergistic effects when combined with existing antibiotics. Most drug-like compounds aimed at human physiology follow “Lipinski’s rule of five“, but the same rules don’t apply to bacteria, he said. What might be a more rewarding place to look for more anti-bacterial compounds? Natural products from fungi and plants, Wright proposed.

“I made a little fist-pump when he said that,” says Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, whose laboratory specializing in looking for anti-bacterial activities in medicinal plants.

Medical thnobotanist Cassandra Quave collecting plant specimens in Italy.

Medical ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave collecting plant specimens in Italy

Indeed, many of the points he made on strategies to overcome antibiotic resistance could apply to Quave’s approach. She and her colleagues have been investigating compounds that can disrupt biofilms, thus enhancing antibiotic activity. More at eScienceCommons and at her lab’s site.

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Looking back – Lab Land Top 10 posts in 2015

Happy New Year, and thank you for reading Emory Lab Land. Here are the top ten posts during 2015, according to Google Analytics. I pledge to bring you more quirky and insightful research, striking images and explanations of hard-to-grasp concepts in 2016.

  1. Hypersomnia update: beyond subject one [post is from summer of 2014, reflects long tail/lasting interest from hypersomnia community]
  2. Anticancer drug strategy: making cells choke on copper
  3. Microbiome enthusiasm at Emory
  4. The unsweetened option [Not about iced tea, but about low-sugar diet and fatty liver disease]
  5. Fragile X regulation is a finely tuned machine
  6. Stem cell/cardiology researcher Hee Cheol Cho joins Emory
  7. There will be micro particles (in stored blood)
  8. Hypersomnia update: clarithromycin study
  9. Gabbing about GABA — implications for hypersomnia treatments
  10. Nudging physician behavior on antibiotic orders
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Metagenomics explainer

A term we heard a bunch at the Emory Microbiome Symposium in November was “metagenomics”. Time for an explainer, with some help from Emory geneticist Tim Read.

Nature Reviews Microbiology defines metagenomics as “genomic analysis of microbial DNA that is extracted directly from communities in environmental samples.”

This technology — genomics on a huge scale — enables a survey of the different microorganisms present in a specific environment, such as water or soil, to be carried out. Metagenomics is also emerging as a tool for clinical diagnosis of infectious diseases.

Read notes that the term specifically refers to “shotgun” sequencing of environmental DNA.

“The shotgun approach is to randomly sample small pieces of the DNA in the tube, no matter which organism they came from,” he says. “The output is a mélange of different genes from bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants and humans.  The data is fascinating but the analysis is daunting.” Read more

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Nudging physician behavior on antibiotic orders

Part of the problem of antibiotic resistance involves physicians’ habits. Doctors are used to prescribing antibiotics in certain situations, even when they may be inappropriate or when alternatives may be best. However, they may be susceptible to “nudges”, even if health care organization policies don’t formally restrict their choices. Former White House regulatory policy guru Cass Sunstein has written several books on this concept.

In March 2015, MD/PhD student Kira Newman and colleagues published a study in Journal of General Internal Medicine that has some bearing on this idea, although it doesn’t address antibiotic resistance directly:

Yelp for Prescribers: a Quasi-Experimental Study of Providing Antibiotic Cost Data and Prescription of High-Cost Antibiotics in an Academic and Tertiary Care Hospital.

The authors describe a shift involving the Emory University hospital electronic health record and order entry system. When a patient has systemic or urinary tract bacterial infection, the system shows a table of antibiotic sensitivity data alongside blood or urine culture results.

Beginning in May 2010, cost category data for antibiotics were added. Explicit numbers were not included – too complicated. Instead, the information was coded in terms of $ to $$$$. For the year after the change, the authors report a 31 percent reduction in average cost per unit of antibiotics prescribed. Read more

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Low-level cadmium toxicity and fatty liver disease

A recent study concluded that it’s more difficult for adults today to maintain the same weight as those a few decades ago, even with the same levels of food intake and exercise. On one level, this news is comforting to anyone in middle age, who may have been athletic as a teenager in the 1980s but isn’t anymore. It’s just harder nowadays!

However, the study authors also suggested, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan, an array of factors that might be contributing to the rise in obesity: exposure to chemicals such as pesticides and flame retardants, prescription drugs such as antidepressants, and altered microbiomes linked with antibiotic use in livestock.

The heavy metal cadmium may belong on that list of chemicals, not primarily as a booster of obesity, but instead in connection with the increase in prevalence in NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) over the last few decades.

Researchers led by Young-Mi Go and Dean Jones exposed mice to low levels of cadmium, so that the amounts of cadmium in their livers were comparable to those present in average middle age Americans, without tobacco or occupational exposure. They observed that cadmium-treated mice had more fat accumulation in the liver and elevated liver enzymes in their blood, compared with control mice with 10 times less cadmium.

Cadmium accumulates in the body over time. Tobacco smoke and the industrial workplace can be routes for cadmium exposure, but food is the major source for most non-smokers. Until the 1990s, most batteries were made with cadmium, and much cadmium production still goes into batteries. It is also found in paint and in corrosion-resistant steel. Read more

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The unsweetened option

Pediatric hepatologist Miriam Vos is starting a new study testing the effects of a low-sugar diet in children with NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). The study is supported by the Nutrition Science Initiative and conducted in a partnership with UCSD/Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego. See below for more on NUSI.

While there are no medications approved for NAFLD – a healthy diet and exercise are the standard of care – plenty of drugs are under development, as a recent article from Mitch Leslie in Science illustrates. As a reality check and benchmark, the NUSI study will address whether the low-tech intervention of altering diet can be effective.

Lab Land has delved into NAFLD and its increasing prevalence in previous posts. Plenty of correlational data shows that sugar intake is linked to NAFLD (a recent paper from the Framingham Heart Study), but Vos points out that there are no studies showing that reducing sugar is sufficient to drive improvement in the disease.

Diet is a challenge to examine in humans rigorously. In observational studies, investigators are always bumping up against the limits of memory and accurate reporting. In an interventional study with adults, it’s possible to provide them a completely defined menu for a short time in a closed environment, but that’s less practical for longer periods or with children.

The press release announcing the NUSI study says: half of the families will eat and drink what they normally do while the rest will be put on sugar-free meals and snacks, all of which will be provided for the participants and their families for eight weeks.

Miriam Vos, MD

I was curious about how this would work, especially for boys aged 11 to 16 (the participants in her study), so I asked Vos more about it for Lab Land.

“We try to provide them a diet that is otherwise similar to what the family is used to,” she says. “For example, if they’re accustomed to home-cooked meals, our team of nutritionists will work with them to find different recipes.” Read more

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Adaptive mutation mechanism may drive some forms of antibiotic resistance

Evolutionary theory says mutations are blind and occur randomly. But in the controversial phenomenon of adaptive mutation, cells can peek under the blindfold, increasing their mutation rate in response to stress.

Scientists at Winship Cancer Institute, Emory University have observed that an apparent “back channel” for genetic information called retromutagenesis can encourage adaptive mutation to take place in bacteria.

The results were published Tuesday, August 25 in PLOS Genetics.

“This mechanism may explain how bacteria develop resistance to some types of antibiotics under selective pressure, as well as how mutations in cancer cells enable their growth or resistance to chemotherapy drugs,” says senior author Paul Doetsch, PhD.

Doetsch is professor of biochemistry, radiation oncology and hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and associate director of basic research at Winship Cancer Institute. The first author of the paper is Genetics and Molecular Biology graduate student Jordan Morreall, PhD, who defended his thesis in April.

Retromutagenesis resolves the puzzle: if cells aren’t growing because they’re under stress, which means their DNA isn’t being copied, how do the new mutants appear?

The answer: a mutation appears in the RNA first. Read more

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Anti-aging tricks from dietary supplement seen in mice

Our recent news item on a Cell Reports paper from ShiQin Xiong and Wayne Alexander describes a connection between two important biological molecules: the exercise-induced transcription coactivator PGC1-alpha and the enzyme telomerase, sometimes described as a “fountain of youth” because telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes.

While the Emory researchers did not directly assess the effects of exercise in their experiments, their findings provide molecular clues to how exercise might slow the effects of aging or chronic disease in some cell types.

Xiong and Alexander found that the dietary supplement alpha lipoic acid (ALA) can stimulate telomerase, with positive effects in a mouse model of atherosclerosis. ALA is a sulfur-containing fatty acid used to treat diabetic neuropathy in Germany, and has previously been shown to combat atherosclerosis in animal models. The Emory authors’ main focus was on vascular smooth muscle cells and note that more study of ALA’s effects on other cell types is needed.

Below are four key references that may help you put the Cell Reports paper in context: Read more

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All the boulders at the same time

Emory is preparing to launch a center devoted to antibiotic resistance. On Wednesday, Arjun Srinivasan, one of the CDC’s point people for antibiotic use and hospital acquired infections, kicked off the preparations with a talk on the multifaceted nature of this problem.

Without attempting to cover everything related to antibiotic resistance (that would take a book — or several), I will note in an upcoming post how Emory and partners such as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta already have begun assembling many of the necessary tools.

Tackling antibiotic resistance has to take into account the habits of physicians, the expectations of patient, improved surveillance and antibiotic overuse in agriculture, as well as research on new antibiotics and detecting dangerous bacteria. In short, it’s both a science and policy issue — captured well by the documentary Resistance.

At the end of his talk, Srinivasan made a remark that brought this home for me, saying “We just have to push all the boulders up the hill at the same time” in response to a question about balancing effort on science vs policy. Allusions to Sisyphus!

Yet he provided some hope too, highlighting a recent CDC study that models how a coordinated response to antibiotic resistance in health care facilities could substantially cut infections. Read more

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