‘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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Reversing liver fibrosis via adiponectin

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is one of the most common liver conditions in the United States, affecting 30 percent of the population, and increasing — and likely to catch up in prevalence with obesity and diabetes. In NAFLD, fat content of the liver is elevated to 6 percent or more in people who drink in moderation or not at all. Patients will first present with elevated liver enzyme values in blood tests, but then an imaging test or tissue biopsy may be ordered to evaluate the extent of the damage. NAFLD is mostly asymptomatic and is variable in severity; a majority of those afflicted do not need drug treatments. However, NAFLD is thought to be a preliminary condition that can eventually progress to severe manifestations, such as cirrhosis, hepatocellular carcinoma, and end stage liver failure.

Progression of liver disease, from NIDDK.  This article is a guest post from Kristina Bargeron Clark, a graduate student at Emory and communications chair for Women in Bio-Atlanta. Her website is www.inkcetera.org.

Progression of liver disease, from NIDDK.
This is a guest post from Kristina Bargeron Clark, a MMG graduate student at Emory and communications chair for Women in Bio-Atlanta. Her website is www.inkcetera.org.

At Emory, Frank Anania, director of the Department of Medicine’s Division of Digestive Diseases, and his colleagues are developing a tool to treat liver disease. A recent publication in the FASEB Journal describes their investigation into the potential for the hormone adiponectin to modulate liver fibrosis.

Adiponectin is produced by adipose tissue, but is known to decrease in overweight people with metabolic disease. Research by others indicates that it may prevent heart and kidney fibrosis. The Emory team’s studies were conducted to determine if adiponectin could also reduce liver fibrosis.

Read more

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Bone-strengthening particles stimulate autophagy

Neale Weitzmann and George Beck have been publishing a series of papers describing how silica nanoparticles can increase bone mineral density in animals. Their findings could someday form the basis for a treatment for osteoporosis.

In 2012, we posted an article and video on this topic. We wanted to call attention to a few of the team’s recent papers, one of which probes the mechanism for a remarkable phenomenon: how can very fine silica particles stimulate bone formation?

The particles’ properties seem to depend on their size: 50 nanometers wide – smaller than a HIV or influenza vision. In a 2014 ACS Nano paper, Beck, Weitzmann and postdoc Shin-Woo Ha show that the particles interact with particular proteins involved in the process of autophagy, a process of “self digestion” induced by stress.

“These studies suggest that it is not the material per se that stimulates autophagy but rather size or shape,” they write. Read more

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A few links for BEINGS2015

Several well-known authors, scientists and bioethicists are in downtown Atlanta’s Tabernacle for the #BEINGS2015 conference. Paul Wolpe and the Center for Ethics have been central to organizing the event, and several Emory biomedical and genetics researchers will be involved in shaping the consensus documents that will emerge.

I won’t attempt to summarize the ongoing discussion at this point; with biotechnology, it is difficult to draw a circle around certain topics and say “we’re going to focus on this, but not this” and today was a good example. The border between existing agricultural biotechnology and new organisms seems hard to define.

Three interesting relevant links:

The National Academy of Sciences is launching an effort to guide decision making on human gene editing technologies such as Cas9/CRISPR

Collection of scientists’ comments on human gene editing and Cas9/CRISPR in Nature Biotechnology

Nature Chem Bio paper on engineered yeast that “paves way for home brew heroin”. Interesting role of FBI in overseeing this emerging area, and note that full production of opiates in yeast may look close, but is still not yet possible.

 

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Six beautiful images — choose your favorites

WoodruffMatthew1

Matthew Woodruff — Bali Pulendran lab

ImageJ=1.48g unit=micron

Kenneth Myers — James Zheng lab

Joshua_Strauss_OPE_Image

Joshua Strauss — Elizabeth Wright lab

AndersonJoAnna

JoAnna Anderson — Francisco Alvarez lab

AlexTamas

Alexey Tamas — Charles Searles lab

Emory’s Office of Postdoctoral Education is holding a Best Image contest. The deadline to vote is this Thursday, April 30. You can look at these beautiful images (and guess exactly what they are, based on what lab they come from), but to VOTE, you need to go to the OPE site.

This is part of the run up to their Postdoctoral Research Symposium at the end of May.

(Hat tip to Ashley Freeman in Dept of Medicine!)

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Congratulations to AAAS Mass Media fellows

Two Emory graduate students, Anzar Abbas and Katie Strong, will be spending the summer testing their communication skills as part of the AAAS Mass Media fellowship program. The program is supposed to promote science communication by giving young scientists a taste of what life is like at media organizations around the country. Both of Emory’s fellows have already gained some experience in this realm.

Abbas, a Neuroscience student who recently joined brain imaging number cruncher Shella Keilholz‘s lab, will be at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is part of the group that recently revived the Science Writers at Emory publication In Scripto.

Strong, a Chemistry student working with Dennis Liotta on selective NMDA receptor drugs, will be at the Sacramento Bee. She has been quite prolific at the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience and its Neuroethics Blog.

(Thanks to Ian Campbell, a previous AAAS Mass Media fellow from Emory who worked at the Oregonian, for notifying me on this!)

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Next generation sequencing roundup

The increasing clinical use of next generation sequencing, especially whole exome and whole genome, continues to be a hot topic. The ability to contribute to diagnosis, clinical utility, incidental findings and whether insurance will cover next-gen sequencing are all changing.

A Nature Medicine article lays out a lot of the emerging business issues on next-gen sequencing. On the topic of incidental findings, Buzzfeed science editor Virginia Hughes last week reported stories of women who receive a cancer diagnosis as a result of having a prenatal genetic test.

“These cases, though extremely rare, are raising ethical questions about the unregulated – and rapidly evolving – genetic-testing industry,” Buzzfeed says.

At a recent Department of Pediatrics seminar, Emory geneticist Michael Gambello described examples of how whole exome sequencing, performed to diagnose intellectual disability or developmental problems in a child, can uncover cancer or neurodegenerative disease risk mutations in a parent. The question becomes, whether to notify the parent for something that may or may not be actionable. This is why Emory Genetics Laboratory’s whole exome sequencing service has an extensive “opt-in/opt-out” consent process.

Emory Genetics Laboratory executive director Madhuri Hegde, working with the Association of Molecular Pathology, has been a leader in pushing genetic testing laboratories to adopt best practices. Read more

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Threshold for long-term marijuana effects on lung function

Intuition may suggest that smoke is bad for the lungs, whether it comes from a campfire or from tobacco or marijuana. A practical question is: how bad is an occasional joint, compared with some background level of air pollution and the lungs’ ability to cope?

Since a few states have been loosening restrictions on marijuana, a group of Emory pulmonologists – Jordan Kempker, Eric Honig, and Greg Martin — decided to look at the long-term effects of marijuana smoking on lung function. Their findings, published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society (PDF), have already attracted some attention. Read more

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Unexpected mechanism for a longevity lipid

The idea that particular lipid components, such as omega-3 fatty acids, promote health is quite familiar, so the finding that the lipid oleoylethanolamide or OEA extends longevity in the worm C. elegans is perhaps not so surprising. However, a recent paper in Science is remarkable for what it reveals about how OEA exerts its effects.

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine led by Meng Wang, with some help from biochemists Eric Ortlund and Eric Armstrong at Emory, discovered that OEA is a way one part of the cell, the lysosome, talks to another part, the nucleus. Lysosomes are sort of recycling centers/trash digesters (important for autophagy) and the nucleus is the control tower for the cell. The authors show that starting in lysosomes, OEA travels to the nucleus and activates nuclear hormone receptors (the Ortlund lab’s specialty). Read more

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Lab Land looking back: Top ten themes for 2014

It is a privilege to work at Emory and learn about and report on so much quality biomedical research. I started to make a top 10 for 2014 and had too many favorites. After diverting some of these topics into the 2015 crystal ball, I corralled them into themes.
1. Cardiac cell therapy
PreSERVE AMI clinical trial led by cardiologist Arshed Quyyumi. Emory investigators developing a variety of approaches to cardiac cell therapy.
2. Mobilizing the body’s own regenerative potential
Ahsan Husain’s work on how young hearts grow. Shan Ping Yu’s lab using parathyroid hormone bone drug to mobilize cells for stroke treatment.
3. Epigenetics
Many colors in the epigenetic palette (hydroxymethylation). Valproate – epigenetic solvent (anti-seizure –> anti-cancer). Methylation in atherosclerosis model (Hanjoong Jo). How to write conservatively about epigenetics and epigenomics.
4. Parkinson’s disease therapeutic strategies
Container Store (Gary Miller, better packaging for dopamine could avoid stress to neurons).
Anti-inflammatory (Malu Tansey, anti-TNF decoy can pass blood-brain barrier).
5. Personal genomics/exome sequencing
Rare disease diagnosis featured in the New Yorker. Threepart series on patient with GRIN2A mutation.
6. Neurosurgeons, like Emory’s Robert Gross and Costas Hadjpanayis, do amazing things
7. Fun vs no fun
Fun = writing about Omar from The Wire in the context of drug discovery.
No fun (but deeply moving) = talking with patients fighting glioblastoma.
8. The hypersomnia field is waking up
Our Web expert tells me this was Lab Land’s most widely read post last year.
9. Fine-tuning approaches to cancer
Image guided cancer surgery (Shuming Nie/David Kooby). Cancer immunotherapy chimera (Jacques Galipeau). Fine tuning old school chemo drug cisplatin (Paul Doetsch)
10. Tie between fructose effects on adolescent brain (Constance Harrell/Gretchen Neigh) and flu immunology (embrace the unfamiliar! Ali Ellebedy/Rafi Ahmed)
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A crystal ball for Lab Land: Top 5 topics in 2015

Alzheimer’s protein pathology

While a wise Dane once proposed that predictions are dangerous, especially concerning the future, it’s usually helpful to plan ahead. Here are five biomedical research topics we think will occupy our attention in 2015.

1. Alzheimer’s We’re hearing discordant music coming from Alzheimer’s researchers. Large pharmaceutical companies are shutting down clinical trials in frustration, but researchers keep coming forward with biomarkers that might predict future disease. This confusing situation calls for some new thinking. Allan Levey, Jim Lah and colleagues have been preparing the way for a “beyond the usual suspects” look at Alzheimer’s disease. We are looking forward to Levey’s appearance at the 2015 AAAS meeting and to drug discovery wizard Keqiang Ye’s continuing work on new therapeutic targets.

2. Ebola While the scare over Ebola in the United States may be over (we hope so!), the outbreak continues to devastate countries in West Africa. Clinical trials testing vaccines and experimental drugs are underway or will be soon. Read more

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