Antibiotic resistance enzyme caught in the act

ICYMI, part of an increasing interest in antibiotic resistance at Emory, coming from many angles: biochemistry/microbiology/infectious diseases.

Fighting HIV, biomedical and behavioral hand in hand

Emory epidemiologist Kristin Wall gets attention at AIDS 2014 with a presentation on the importance of couples counseling

Socialization relative strength in fragile X longitudinal study

Adaptive behavior covers a range of everyday social and practical skills, including communication, socialization, and completing tasks of daily living such as getting dressed. In a recent study, socialization emerged as a relative strength in boys with fragile X, in that it did not decline as much as the other two domains of adaptive behavior measured: communication and daily living skills.

Hunting for potential diabetes drugs

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and his colleagues have been prolific in finding small molecules able to mimic the action of the brain growth factor BDNF. Aiming to export that success to similar molecules (that is, other receptor tyrosine kinases), they have been searching for potential drugs able to substitute for insulin.

Diabetes drugs Januvia (sitagliptin) and Lantus (insulin analog) are top 20 drugs, both in terms of dollars and monthly prescriptions, and the inconvenience of insulin injection is well known, so the business potential is clear.

A paper published in the journal Diabetes in April describes Ye’s team’s identification of a compound called chaetochromin A, which was originally isolated by Japanese researchers studying toxins found in moldy rice. Chaetochromin A can drive down blood sugar in normal, type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes mouse models, the authors show.

See here for another compound identified in Ye’s lab with similar properties.

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CRISPR gene editing can miss its mark

Yanni Lin, TJ Cradick, Gang Bao and colleagues from Georgia Tech and Emory reported recently in Nucleic Acids Research on how the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system can sometimes miss its mark.

CRISPR/Cas9 has received abundant coverage from science-focused media outlets. Basically, it is a convenient system for cutting DNA in cells in a precise way. This paper shows that the CRISPR/Cas9 system can sometimes cut DNA in places that don’t exactly match the designed target.

Here we show that CRISPR/Cas9 systems can have off-target cleavage when DNA sequences have an extra base or a missing base at various locations compared with the corresponding RNA guide strand…Our results suggest the need to perform comprehensive off-target analysis by considering cleavage due to DNA and sgRNA bulges in addition to base mismatches.

CRISPR/Cas9 could be used to develop therapies for humans for genetic blood diseases such as sickle cell or thalassemia, and this paper does not change that potential. But the authors are cautioning fellow scientists that they need to design their tools carefully and perform quality control. Other investigators have made similar findings.

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Evaluating a different way to measure LDL

What is the most important measurement of cholesterol or lipids in the blood, when it comes to cardiovascular disease risk? LDL-C [low density lipoprotein cholesterol], is often called “bad cholesterol” because it is linked to atherosclerosis, but the landscape is always shifting. Even as cardiologists across the country get used to the new AHA/ACC guidelines, which call for changes in how physicians and patients view LDL-C, new research is focusing attention on other related markers. For example, a recent pair of studies in the New England Journal of Medicine identify gene mutations that lower both triglycerides and heart disease risk, suggesting that drugs that target that gene pathway could be beneficial. A new paper in Atherosclerosis, coauthored by Emory’s Terry Jacobson, looks at LDL-P, a different way of looking at LDL that has been proposed to be a better measure of cardiovascular disease risk. Jacobson is director of the Office of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Grady Health Systems. Read more

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Epigenetic changes in atherosclerosis

If someone living in America and eating a typical diet and leading a sedentary lifestyle lets a few years go by, we can expect plaques of cholesterol and inflammatory cells to build up in his or her arteries. We’re not talking “Super-size Me” here, we’re just talking average American. But then let’s say that same person decides: “OK, I’m going to shape up. I’m going to eat healthier and exercise more.”

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Let’s leave aside whether low-carb or low-fat is best, and let’s say that person succeeds in sticking to his or her declared goals. How “locked in” are the changes in the blood vessels when someone has healthy or unhealthy blood flow patterns?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo and his colleagues published a paper in Journal of Clinical Investigation that touches on this issue. They have an animal model where disturbed blood flow triggers the accumulation of atherosclerosis. They show that the gene expression changes in endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, have an epigenetic component. Specifically, the durable DNA modification known as methylation is involved, and blocking DNA methylation with a drug used for treating some forms of cancer can prevent atherosclerosis in their model. This suggests that blood vessels retain an epigenetic imprint reflecting the blood flow patterns they see.

Although treating atherosclerosis with the drug decitabine is not a viable option clinically, Jo’s team was able to find several genes that are silenced by disturbed blood flow and that need DNA methylation to stay shut off. A handful of those genes have a common mechanism of regulation and may be good therapeutic targets for drug discovery.

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Cancer immunotherapy, meet chimera

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In Greek mythology, the chimera was a monstrous fire-breathing creature composed of the parts of three animals: a lion, a snake and a goat.

Adoptive cell transfer is advancing as a cancer immunotherapy technique. It involves removing some of a patient’s immune cells, culturing them in the laboratory, and then infusing the cells back into the patient. The idea is to enhance the ability of the immune cells to attack the tumors far beyond what the immune system was able of doing on its own.

Two promising examples are the National Cancer Institute’s approach of treating advanced melanoma with IL-2-stimulated immune cells, and several investigators’ approach of genetically engineering T cells to attack leukemias or lymphomas.

Jacques Galipeau and colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute have developed a chimeric molecule for stimulating immune cells, which appears to have unique powers beyond simply the sum of its two parts. The molecule is called GIFT4, a fusion of the immune signaling molecules GM-CSF (often used in cancer treatment) and IL-4.

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Parkinson’s drug discovery: visit the dopamine container store

In a recent PNAS paper, Gary Miller and colleagues at Rollins School of Public Health outline a potential therapeutic approach to Parkinson’s disease that I’m going to call the Container Store approach.

If you have a mess in your kitchen or basement workshop, you might need more or better containers to hold your tools. Analogously, problems in Parkinson’s disease can be traced back to a lack of effective containers for the brain communication chemical dopamine.

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Charlotte Observer highlights Lab Land

Thanks to Amber Veverka for featuring Lab Land as part of the Charlotte Observer’s regular look at science-oriented blogs. I reproduce my responses here to add some links.

Describe the range of health science research you are covering on Lab Land – and a little bit about your intended audience.

Any intriguing idea emerging from basic or clinical biomedical research happening at Emory. The blog is aimed at people who are somewhat familiar with biological concepts, like graduate students, postdocs or science journalists.

What are some of the most exciting advances you’ve recently written about?

Here are a few!

*Neuroscientists found that a mouse can pass on a learned sensitivity to a smell to its offspring

*Cardiologists discovered that heart muscle cells in mice grow in a dramatic spurt after birth, with implications for the treatment of congenital heart defects.

*Some peoples’ brains produce something that acts like a sleeping pill, giving them hypersomnia. It’s not clear what this mysterious brain chemical is yet.

*Less invasive epilepsy surgery involving lasers; seizure control with fewer cognitive side effects

*Biomedical engineers are developing ways to prevent stem cells from being washed out of the heart Read more

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Statins, prostate cancer and mitochondria

In honor of Fathers’ Day, we are examining a connection between two older-male-centric topics: statins and prostate cancer.

Statins are a very widely prescribed class of drugs used to lower cholesterol levels, for the purpose of preventing cardiovascular disease. In cell culture, they appear to kill prostate cancer cells, but the epidemiological evidence is murkier. Statin effects on prostate cancer incidence have been up in the air, but recent reports point to the possibility that starting statins may slow progression, after a man has been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Winship Cancer Institute researchers have some new results that shed some light on this effect. John Petros, Rebecca Arnold and Qian Sun have found that mutations in mitochondrial DNA make prostate cancer cells resistant to cell death induced by simvastatin [Zocor, the most potent generic statin]. Sun recently presented the results at the American Urological Association meeting in Orlando.

In other forms of cancer such as breast and lung cancer, genomic profiling can determine what DNA mutations are driving cancer growth and what drugs are likely to be effective in fighting the cancer. The prostate cancer field has not reached the same point, partly because prostate cancers are not generally treated with chemotherapy until late in the game, Petros says. But potentially, information on mitochondrial mutations could guide decisions on whether to initiate statin (or another) therapy.

“This is part of our soapbox,” he says. “When we are looking at mutational effects on prostate cancer, let’s be sure to include the mitochondrial genome.”

Winship’s Carlos Moreno and his colleagues are working on the related question of biomarkers that predict prostate cancer progression, after prostatectomy surgery and potentially after just a biopsy.

Read more

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Freezing stem cells disrupts their function

What applies to meat, vegetables and fish may also apply to cells for use in cell therapy: frozen often isn’t quite as good.

Ian Copland and colleagues from Emory’s Personalized Immunotherapy Center have a paper this week in Stem Cells Reports discussing how freezing and thawing stem cells messes them up. Specifically, it disrupts their actin cytoskeletons and impairs their ability to find their niches in the body. Culturing the cells for 48 hours after thawing does seem to correct the problem, though.

The findings have some straightforward implications for researchers planning to test cell therapies in clinical applications. The authors conclude:

Until such time as a cryopreservation and thawing procedure can yield a viable and fully functional MSC product immediately after thawing, our data support the idea of using live MSCs rather than post-thaw cryo MSCs for clinical evaluation of MSCs as an immunosuppressive agent.

Notably, the Emory Personalized Immunotherapy Center has built a process designed around offering never-frozen autologous (that is, the patient’s own) mesenchymal stem cells, as therapies for autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease.

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Beyond the usual suspects among Alzheimer’s proteins

If you’ve been paying attention to Alzheimer’s disease research, you’ve probably read a lot about beta-amyloid. It’s a toxic protein fragment that dominates the plaques that appear in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Many experimental therapies for Alzheimer’s target beta-amyloid, but so far, they’ve not proven effective.

That could be for several reasons. Maybe those treatments started too late to make a difference. But an increasing number of Alzheimer’s researchers are starting to reconsider the field’s emphasis on amyloid. Nature News has a feature this week explaining how the spotlight is shifting to the protein ApoE, encoded by the gene whose variation is responsible for the top genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

In line with this trend, Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center recently received a five-year, $7.2 million grant to go beyond the usual suspects like beta-amyloid. Emory will lead several universities in a project to comprehensively examine proteins altered in Alzheimer’s. You’ve heard of the Cancer Genome Atlas? Think of this as the Alzheimer’s Proteome Atlas, potentially addressing the same kind of questions about which changes are the drivers and which are the passengers.

Emory’s back-to-basics proteomics approach has already yielded some scientific fruit, uncovering changes in proteins involved in RNA splicing and processing. Also, the Nature feature also has some background on a clinical trial called TOMMORROW, which Emory’s ADRC is participating in.

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