‘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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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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Providing the potent part of probiotics

A Emory News item on a helpful part of the microbiome focuses on how the same type of bacteria – lactobacilli – activates the same ancient signaling pathway in intestinal cells in both insects and mammals. It continues a line of research from Rheinallt Jones and Andrew Neish on how beneficial bacteria stimulate wound healing by activating ROS (reactive oxygen species).

Asma Nusrat, MD

A idea behind this research is: if we know what parts of the bacteria stimulate healing, perhaps doctors can deliver that material, or something very close, to patients directly to treat intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

This idea has advanced experimentally, as demonstrated by two papers from Jones and Neish’s frequent collaborator, Asma Nusrat, who recently moved from Emory to the University of Michigan. This team had shown that a protein produced by human intestinal cells called annexin A1 activates ROS, acting through the same N-formyl peptide receptors that bacteria do.

Nusrat told me Friday her team began investigating annexins a decade ago at Emory, and it was fortuitous that Neish was working on beneficial bacteria right down the hall, since it is now apparent that annexin A1 and the bacteria are activating the same molecular signals. (Did you know there is an entire conference devoted to annexins? I didn’t until a few days ago.)

In a second Journal of Clinical Investigation paper published this February, Nusrat and her colleagues show that intestinal cells release vesicles containing annexin A1 following injury. The wound closure-promoting effects of these vesicles can be mimicked with nanoparticles containing annexin A1. The nanoparticles incorporate a form of collagen, which targets them to injured intestinal tissue. Read more

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Emory team part of undiagnosed conditions challenge

An Emory team of geneticists and genetics counselors is participating in the Clarity Undiagnosed competition, hosted by Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The team is led by genetics counselor Dawn Laney MS, CGC, CCRC. Team members include: Madhuri Hegde, PhD, William Wilcox, MD,PhD, Michael Gambello, MD, PhD, Rani Singh, PhD, RD, Suma Shankar, MD, PhD, Alekhya Narravula, MS,CGC, Kristin Cornell, MS, CRC, Cristina da Silva, MS, Sarah Richards, MS, CGC and Kimberly Lewis, MS, CGC.

In Clarity Undiagnosed, five families of patients with undiagnosed conditions provide DNA sequence information and clinical summaries to up to 30 competing teams. The teams then do their best to interpret the data and provide answers, and a $25,000 prize will go to the team that solves the mysteries in the most complete way.

At the discretion of the families, short videos of the patients may be available to investigators through producers of a forthcoming documentary film, Undiagnosed, but the teams are barred from direct interaction with the families. A glimpse of some of the families is possible by viewing the trailer. Teams have until September 21 to submit their reports and the results of the competition will be announced in November.

Boston Children’s and Harvard held a similar competition in 2012, which attracted teams from all over the world.

The competition grows out of the NIH-sponsored Undiagnosed Diseases Network; Emory pharmacologists Stephen Traynelis and Hongjie Yuan have been working with the related Undiagnosed Diseases Program based at NIH (very complex 2014 paper, blog post on personalized molecular medicine).

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