The time Anna stayed up all night

Almost precisely a decade ago, a young Atlanta lawyer named Anna was returning to work, after being treated for an extraordinary sleep disorder. Her story has been told here at Emory and by national media outlets. Fast forward a decade to Idiopathic Hypersomnia Awareness Week 2018 (September 3-9), organized by Hypersomnolence Australia. What this post deals with is essentially the correction of a date at the tail end of Anna’s story, but one with long-term implications Read more

Mini-monsters of cardiac regeneration

Jinhu Wang’s lab is not producing giant monsters. They are making fish with fluorescent hearts. Lots of cool Read more

Why is it so hard to do good science?

Last week, Lab Land put out a Twitter poll, touching on the cognitive distortions that make it difficult to do high-quality science. Lots of people (almost 50) responded! Thank you! We had to be vague about where all this came from, because it was before the publication of the underlying research paper. Ray Dingledine, in Emory’s Department of Pharmacology, asked us to do the Twitter poll first, to see what answers people would give. Dingledine’s Read more

Fragile X: preclinical portfolio for PI3k drug strategy

Research in mice shows that a pharmacological strategy can alleviate multiple behavioral and cellular deficiencies in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome (FXS), the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online last week by Neuropsychopharmacology, and were presented at the NFXF International Fragile X Conference in Cincinnati.

When the compound GSK6A was given to mice lacking the Fmr1 gene, an established animal model of fragile X syndrome, it relieved symptomatic behaviors, such as impaired social interactions and inflexible decision making, which can be displayed by humans with fragile X syndrome.

The findings indicate that treatment with GSK6A or a similar compound could be a viable strategy for addressing cognitive and behavioral problems in fragile X syndrome; this would need to be tested directly in clinical trials. GSK6A inhibits one particular form of a cellular signaling enzyme: the p110β form of PI3 (phosphoinositide-3) kinase. A closely related p110β inhibitor is already in clinical trials for cancer.

Video from the iBook “Basic Science Breakthroughs: Fragile X Syndrome”. Narration by Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren, whose team identified the gene responsible for fragile X.

“Our results suggest that p110β inhibitors can be repurposed for fragile X syndrome, and they have implications for other subtypes of autism spectrum disorders that are characterized by similar alterations of this pathway,” says Gary Bassell, PhD, professor and chair of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Right now, no proven efficient treatments are available for fragile X syndrome that are targeted to the disease mechanism,” says Christina Gross, PhD, from Cincinnati Children’s. “We think that p110β is an appropriate target because it is directly regulated by FMRP, and it is overactivated in both mouse models and patient cell lines.”

The paper represents a collaboration between three laboratories: two at Emory led by Bassell and Shannon Gourley, PhD, and one at Cincinnati Children’s, led by Gross. Gourley is based at Yerkes National Primate Research Center; see this earlier item on her collaboration with Bassell here.

While the researchers are discussing clinical trials of p110β inhibitors in fragile X syndrome, they say that long-term studies in animals are needed to ensure that undesirable side effects do not appear. More here.

With respect to clinical trials, the fragile X community has been disappointed before. Based on encouraging studies in mouse models, drugs targeting mGluR5 glutamate receptors were tested in adolescents and adults. mGluR5 drugs did not show clear benefits; recent re-evaluation suggests the choice of outcome measures, the ages of study participants and drug tolerance may have played a role.

Warren played a major role in developing the mGluR5 approach and Emory investigators were part of those studies. More recently, clinical trials for one of the mGluR5 medications were revived in younger children and Emory is a participating site. Also, see this 2016 discussion in Spectrum with Elizabeth Berry-Kravis on the fragile X mouse model; Bassell, Gross and Gourley have made some inroads on the limitations Berry-Kravis describes.

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Stem cells driven into selective suicide

The term “stem cell” is increasingly stretchy. Orthopedic specialists have been using it when referring to bone marrow concentrate or platelet rich plasma, which are marketed as treatments for joint pain. At Lab Land, we have an interest in pluripotent stem cells, which can differentiate into many types of tissues.

For many applications, the stem cells are actually impurities that need to be removed, because pluripotent stem cells are capable of becoming teratomas, a type of tumor. For quality control, researchers want to figure out how to ensure that the stem-cell-derived cardiac muscle or neural progenitor or pancreas cells (or whatever) are as pure as possible.

Cardiologist and stem cell expert Chunhui Xu has been continuing a line of investigation on this topic. In a recent paper in ACS Chemical Biology, her team showed that “suicide-inducing molecules” can eliminate undifferentiated stem cells from a mixture of cells. This stem-cell-derived mixture was mostly cardiac muscle cells or their progenitors, which Xu’s team wants to use for therapeutic purposes.

Other labs have used metabolic selection – depriving cells of glucose and giving them only lactate –as a selective method for eliminating stem cells from cardiac muscle cultures. This paper shows that the “selective suicide” method works for early-stage differentiation cultures, containing cardiac progenitors, while the metabolic method works only for late-stage cultures contains beating cardiomyocytes.

Read more

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The blue spot: where seeds of destruction begin

Neuroscientist and geneticist David Weinshenker makes a case that the locus coeruleus (LC), a small region of the brainstem and part of the pons, is among the earliest regions to show signs of degeneration in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. You can check it out in Trends in Neurosciences.

The LC is the main source of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in the brain, and gets its name (Latin for “blue spot”) from the pigment neuromelanin, which is formed as a byproduct of the synthesis of norepinephrine and its related neurotransmitter dopamine. The LC has connections all over the brain, and is thought to be involved in arousal and attention, stress responses, learning and memory, and the sleep-wake cycle.

Cells in the locus coeruleus are lost in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. From Kelly et al Acta Neuropath. Comm. (2017) via Creative Commons

The protein tau is one of the toxic proteins tied to Alzheimer’s, and it forms intracellular tangles. Pathologists have observed that precursors to tau tangles can be found in the LC in apparently healthy people before anywhere else in the brain, sometimes during the first few decades of life, Weinshenker writes. A similar bad actor in Parkinson’s, alpha-synuclein, can also be detected in the LC before other parts of the brain that are well known for damage in Parkinson’s, such as the dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra.

“The LC is the earliest site to show tau pathology in AD and one of the earliest (but not the earliest) site to show alpha-synuclein pathology in PD,” Weinshenker tells Lab Land. “The degeneration of the cells in both these diseases is more gradual. It probably starts in the terminals/fibers and eventually the cell bodies die.” Read more

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Complexity of NMDA receptor drug discovery target revealed

Know your target. Especially if your target is coming into focus for treating diseases such as schizophrenia and treatment-resistant depression.

NMDA receptors, critical for learning and memory, are sensors in the brain. Studying them in molecular detail is challenging, because they usually come in four parts, and the parts aren’t all the same.

Researchers at Emory have been probing one variety of NMDA receptor assembly found in the cerebellum, and also in the thalamus, a central gateway for sensory inputs, important for cognition, movement and sleep. This variety includes a subunit called GluN2C – together with two partners, GluN1 and GluN2A.

The results were published Thursday, June 28 in Neuron.

Outside of a living brain, NMDA receptor assemblies are typically studied with either two copies of GluN2C or two of GluN2A, but not with one of each, says senior author Stephen Traynelis, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine

“Our data suggest that GluN2C is rarely by itself,” Traynelis says. “It’s typically paired up with another GluN2 subunit. This means we really don’t know what the properties of the main NMDA receptor in the cerebellum or the thalamus are.”

Psychiatrists have become interested in GluN2C because it appears to decline in the brains of schizophrenia patients. Mice without adequate levels of GluN2C display abnormalities in learning, memory and sensory processing, which together resemble schizophrenia in humans. In addition, GluN2C appears to be important for the mechanism of ketamine, a drug being studied for its rapid anti-depressant effects.

Using drugs that are selective for particular combinations of NMDA receptor subunits, Traynelis’ laboratory showed that an assembly of GluN2A and GluN2C is the dominant form in the mouse cerebellum. When GluN2C is introduced into cortical neurons, it prefers to pair up with GluN2A, the researchers found. This raises the question, in regions such as the thalamus, of whether GluN2C also appears with a partner GluN2 subunit. They also observed that the GluN2A-GluN2C assembly has distinct electrochemical properties. Read more

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Measuring sleepiness: alternatives to five naps

In a 2015 episode of The Simpsons, Homer is diagnosed with narcolepsy. Overwhelming sleepiness at the nuclear power plant lands him in the hospital. Sampling his spinal fluid (ouch!), Homer’s chuckling, deep-voiced doctor quickly performs a test for hypocretin, a brain chemical important for staying awake and regulating REM sleep.

Reality check: testing for hypocretin takes time, and is not currently available in the United States. Let’s talk about how sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia are actually diagnosed: operationally, rather than biologically. The less flashy, but standard, way to assess patients is to ask them to take a series of five naps and see how fast they doze off, and how fast they go into REM sleep (the rapid eye movement dreaming phase).

This process, known as the Multiple Sleep Latency Test or MSLT, works pretty well for narcolepsy type 1, the more distinctive form of narcolepsy that includes cataplexy. And it’s hard to fake being sleepy enough to zonk out within a few minutes. But it has a bunch of problems, and dissatisfaction with the MSLT has been developing among sleep specialists for the last several years.

Lynn Marie Trotti, MD

At Emory, neurologists Lynn Marie Trotti and David Rye published an analysis of what I will call the “flip flop problem” in 2013, with others in the field following up more recently. The flip flop problem is: someone who takes the MSLT one day will frequently get another result if they take it again on a different day. Read more

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‘Unbiased’ approaches to Alzheimer’s

In recent news stories about Alzheimer’s disease research, we noticed a word popping up: unbiased. Allan Levey, chair of Emory’s neurology department and head of Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, likes to use that word too. It’s key to a “back to the drawing board” shift taking place in the Alzheimer’s field.

Last week’s announcement of a link between herpes viruses and Alzheimer’s, which Emory researchers contributed to, was part of this shift. Keep in mind: the idea that viral infection contributes to Alzheimer’s has been around a long time, and the Neuron paper doesn’t nail down causality.  

Still, here’s an example quote from National Institute on Aging director Richard Hodes: “This is the first study to provide strong evidence based on unbiased approaches and large data sets that lends support to this line of inquiry.”

What is the bias that needs to be wrung out of the science? The “amyloid hypothesis” has dominated drug development for the last several years. Amyloid is a main constituent of the plaques that appear in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, so treatments that counteract amyloid’s accumulation should help, right? Unfortunately, antibodies against amyloid or inhibitors of enzymes that process it generally haven’t worked out in big clinical trials, although the possibility remains that they weren’t introduced early enough to have a decent effect. Read more

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Antibody production: an endurance sport

Antibodies defend us against infections, so they often get described as weapons. And the cells that produce them could be weapon factories?. To understand recent research from immunologist Jerry Boss’s lab, a more appropriate metaphor is the distinction between sprinting and long-distance running.

Graduate student Madeline Price in Boss’s lab has been investigating how antibody-producing cells use glucose – the simple sugar– and how the cells’ patterns of gene activity reflect that usage. Cells can use glycolysis, which is inefficient but fast, analogous to sprinting, or oxidative phosphorylation, generating much more energy overall, more like long distance running.

As Boss and Price point out:

Immunology + Molecular Pathogenesis graduate student Madeline Price

Glycolytic metabolism produces 2 molecules of ATP per molecule of glucose, while oxidative phosphorylation produces 36 molecules of ATP from the same starting glucose molecule. Where oxidative phosphorylation generates more energy from ATP, glycolysis generates metabolic intermediates that are also useful for rapid cellular proliferation.

In their recent paper in Cell Reports, they lay out what happens to B cells, which can go on to become antibody secreting cells (ASCs), after an initial encounter with bacteria. The B cells first proliferate and upregulate both glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation. However, upon differentiating, the cells shift their preference to oxidative phosphorylation. Read more

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Focus on antibiotic resistance at ASM Microbe 2018

We are excited that the ASM Microbe meeting will be at the Georgia World Congress Center from June 7 to June 11. If you are interested in antibiotic resistance, you can learn about how to detect it, how to (possibly) defeat it and how the bacteria fight back.

A host of Emory microbiologists are participating. In some cases, our scientists are presenting their unpublished data for discussion with their colleagues at other universities. Accordingly, we are not going to spill the beans on those results. However, please find below some examples of who’s talking and a bit of explanatory background. ASM Microbe abstracts are available online for posters, but not for some symposiums and plenary talks.

David Weiss labKlebsiella

Graduate student Jessie Wozniak is presenting her research on an isolate of Klebsiella that combines alarming properties. She will describe how the bacterial colonies behave (unappetizingly) like stretchy melted cheese in a “string test.”

June 9, 11 am to 1 pm, June 11, 11 am to 1 pm

Christine Dunham – toxin-antitoxin/persistence

Graduate student Sarah Anderson presenting her poster at ASM Microbe. She discussed a genetic connection between virulence switch and antibiotic resistance.

Dunham, a structural biologist, is giving a plenary talk June 11 on toxin-antitoxin pairs, which play a role in regulating bacterial persistence, a dormant state that facilitates antibiotic resistance. Two past papers from her lab.

Phil Rather labAcinetobacter baumannii

Rather’s lab recently published a Nature Microbiology paper on A. baumannii’s virulence/opacity switch. This type of bacteria is known for hospital-associated infections and for wound infections in military personnel. Poster talk by graduate student Sarah Anderson June 8. Read more

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Less mucus, more neutrophils: alternative view of CF

A conventional view of cystic fibrosis (CF) and its effects on the lungs is that it’s all about mucus. The inherited disease leads to an accumulation of mucus in the lungs, which appears to be connected with inflammation, susceptibility to infection and loss of lung capacity.

Immunologist Rabin Tirouvanziam has an alternative view, centered on neutrophils. They are a type of immune cell that is very numerous, yet often overlooked, he says.

Rabindra Tirouvanziam, PhD

A new paper, published in Journal of Leukocyte Biology, substantiates his ideas about cystic fibrosis and harnesses them for future diagnostic and therapeutic advances. Tirouvanziam is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Children’s Center. He and his colleagues have developed a system for studying neutrophil behavior in a specialized culture, a model of a cell layer in the lung.

Neutrophils behave differently in the diseased lung environment, compared with when they are in the blood. The culture system makes the neutrophils pass through a layer of lung cells, under the influence of lung fluids obtained from CF patients. The culture system opens up the opportunity of testing fluids from patients to mark disease progression, as well as drug discovery: looking for compounds that could deprogram the neutrophils. Read more

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Blue plate special: express delivery to the heart

The anti-arrhythmia drug amiodarone is often prescribed for control of atrial fibrillation, but can have toxic effects upon the lungs, eyes, thyroid and liver. Emory and Georgia Tech scientists have developed a method for delivering amiodarone directly to the heart in an extended release gel to reduce off-target effects.

The results were published in Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology.

The senior author is Rebecca Levit, MD, assistant professor of medicine (cardiology) at Emory University School of Medicine and adjunct in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. Graduate student Jose Garcia – part of co-author Andres Garcia’s lab at Georgia Tech — and Peter Campbell, MD are the first authors.

An amiodarone-containing gel was applied to the outside of the heart by a minimally invasive procedure. After a one-time delivery, the gel could reduce the duration of atrial fibrillation and the likelihood of its development for a month in a pig model. The researchers were also able to show that amiodarone did not have toxic effects on the pigs’ lungs.

As noted in the book Off-label prescribing – Justifying unapproved medicine, amiodarone is “one of the very few drugs approved by the FDA in modern times without rigorous randomized clinical trials.” Read more

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