‘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

GRIN families join together for neuroscience

Editor’s note: This post was a collaboration with MMG graduate student Megan Hockman.

They were brought together by their children’s epilepsies, and by rapid advances in genetic sequencing. Only a few years ago, these families would have been isolated, left to deal with their children’s seizures and neurological problems on their own. Now, they’ve organized themselves and are shaping the future of research.

Agonist binding domains of NMDA receptors, where several disease-causing mutations can be found. Adapted from Swanger et al, AJHG (2016).

In mid-September, parents of children affected by variations in GRIN genes gathered at Emory Conference Center to meet with scientists to discuss current research. GRIN disorders occur because of mutations in genes encoding NMDA receptors, which play key roles in memory, learning and neuronal development. NMDA receptors are a type of receptor for glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. The receptors themselves are encoded by multiple genes and assemble into tetramers. When their function is altered by mutations in one of these genes, symptoms appear in infancy or early childhood, usually including epilepsy and developmental delay.

The conference was the first time several patient advocacy groups oriented around GRIN-related disorders had met together, says Denise Rehner, president of the CureGRIN Foundation and mother of an affected child. For parents, this was an opportunity to connect with each other and advocacy groups, and to interact with scientists. For researchers, it was a chance to hear from those who are being impacted by their studies, and to discuss better ways to share data.

“We got a chance to explain to all the stakeholders – patient groups, foundations, companies – exactly what we do,” said Emory neuroscientist and conference organizer Stephen Traynelis, director of the Center for Functional Evaluation of Rare Variants. Traynelis and colleague Hongjie Yuan have been tracking the direct impacts of mutations on the function of the NMDA receptor. In doing so, they plan work with clinicians to compile registries, linking specific functional data to patient symptoms.

In addition to understanding underlying mechanisms and outcomes of GRIN disorders, researchers want to figure out how to treat affected children with existing drugs. Several options exist for targeting NMDA receptors, such as dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant) or memantine, approved for symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Traynelis and Yuan previously collaborated with the Undiagnosed Disease Program (now the Undiagnosed Disease Network) at the National Institutes of Health to investigate memantine as a treatment for a child with a GRIN2A mutation, showing that the drug could reduce seizure burden in one patient. Read more

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Immunologists identify T cell homing beacons for lungs

Scientists have identified a pair of molecules critical for T cells, part of the immune system, to travel to and populate the lungs. A potential application could be strengthening vaccines against respiratory pathogens such as influenza.

The findings were published online Thursday, September 26 in Journal of Experimental Medicine.

T cells in the lungs, courtesy of Alex Wein. Blue represents respiratory epithelium (EpCAM), while various T cells stain red, yellow or green.

Much research on immunity to influenza virus focuses on antibodies, infection- or vaccine-induced proteins in the blood that can smother viruses. But CD8 T cells, which survey other cells for signs of viral infection and kill infected cells, are an important arm of our defenses too. The epitopes – or bits of viral protein – they recognize generally do not change from year to year.

Researchers led by Jacob Kohlmeier, PhD, at Emory University School of Medicine wanted to learn more about what’s needed to get CD8 T cells into the lungs, since the lungs will often contain the first cells incoming virus will have a chance to infect. However, T cells don’t stick around in the lungs for extended amounts of time.

“The airways are a unique environment in the body,” says Alex Wein, a MD/PhD student who trained in Kohlmeier’s lab. “They’re high in oxygen but low in nutrients. Unlike other tissues, when T cells enter the airways, it’s a one-way trip and they have a half-life of a few weeks, so they must be continually repopulated.”

Wein, his fellow MD/PhD Sean McMaster, now at Boston Consulting Group, and Shiki Takamura at Kindai University are co-first authors of the paper. Kohlmeier is assistant professor of microbiology and immunology and part of the Emory-UGA Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance.

The researchers showed that two molecules, called CXCR6 and CXCL16, are needed for CD8 T cells to reach the airways in mice. CXCR6 is found on T cells and CXCL16 is produced by the epithelial cells lining the airways of the lungs. Read more

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A new term in biophysics: force/time = “yank”

Biologists and biomedical engineers are proposing to define the term “yank” for changes in force over time, something that our muscles cause and nerves can sense and respond to. Their ideas were published on September 12 in Journal of Experimental Biology.

Expressed mathematically, acceleration is the derivative of speed or velocity with respect to time. The term for the time derivative of acceleration is “jerk,” and additional time derivatives after jerk are called “snap,” “crackle” and “pop.”

The corresponding term for force – in physics, force is measured in units of mass times acceleration – has never been defined, the researchers say.

Scientists that study sports often use the term “rate of force development”, a measure of explosive strength. Scientists who study gait and balance — in animals and humans — also often analyze how quickly forces on the body change. It could be useful in understanding spasticity, a common neuromuscular reflex impairment in multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, stroke and cerebral palsy.

“Understanding how reflexes and sensory signals from the muscles are affected by neurological disorders is how we ended up needing to define the rate change in force,” says Lena Ting, PhD, professor of rehabilitation medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. Read more

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Are immune-experienced mice better for sepsis research?

Why isn’t a laboratory mouse more like a human? There are several answers, beyond the differences in size and physiology between mice and humans, such as microbiome and immunological experience. Emory researchers led by Mandy Ford and Craig Coopersmith recently published a couple papers that aim to take those factors into account.

The goal is to make mouse immune systems and microbiomes more complex and more like those in humans, so the mice they can better model the deadly derangement of sepsis. So far, sepsis research in mice has been a poor predictor of clinical success. This aligns with work at the National Institutes of Health on “wildling” mice, which have microbes more like wild mice. (Lab Land likes noticing a trend that Emory researchers are part of.)

One Emory paper, in FASEB Journal, shows that mortality in a mouse model of sepsis varies according to the commercial facility where the mice came from. When the mice were allowed to live together and exchange microbes, mortality numbers evened out.

Another, published in JCI Insight, looks at mice that have more memory T cells than naïve mice, since adult humans have a high proportion of memory T cells in their immune systems. Other scientists have shown that sepsis leads to a wipeout of memory T cells, and probably vulnerability in defending against infection. Read more

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One more gene between us and bird flu

We’re always in favor of stopping a massive viral pandemic, or at least knowing more about what might make one happen. So we read a recent PLOS Pathogens paper with interest. The general theme is similar to this February 2019 paper from Anice Lowen’s lab in PNAS. To paraphrase Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: birds and humans living together, mass hysteria!

Here, Emory researchers looked at the M segment of influenza virus, which appears to determine host restriction, or the ability of viruses that infect bird cells to migrate to mammals. The M segment, was important for emergence of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu.

One of eight influenza gene segments, the M segment encodes a protein that can interfere with cellular functions (autophagic vesicles) on which the virus relies. The new data reveal that reductions in M2 protein occurred in connection with past important adaptation events, such as when a Eurasian avian-like swine virus emerged from birds in the 1970s.

“This mechanism constitutes a novel paradigm in RNA virus host adaptation, and reveals a new species barrier for IAV, which may be highly relevant for the emergence of avian IAVs into humans,” the authors conclude. Read more

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Antibody diversity mutations come from a vast genetic library

Vaccine scientists want to nudge the immune system into producing antibodies that will protect us from infection. In doing so, they are playing with fire – in a limited way. With every healthy antibody response, a process of internal evolution takes place among B cells, the immune cells that produce antibodies. It’s called “somatic hypermutation.”

In the lymph nodes, individual B cells undergo an accelerated rate of mutation. It’s as if those B cells’ DNA were being cooked with radiation or mutagenic chemicals – but only in a few genes. Then the lymph nodes select the B cells with high-affinity antibodies.

Gordon Dale, a just-defended graduate student from Joshy Jacob’s lab in Emory Vaccine Center, has a new paper in Journal of Immunology that sheds light on how somatic hypermutation takes place in both mice and humans.

In particular, Dale and Jacob found that the mutations that occur in human and mouse antibody genes are not random. They appear to borrow information from gene segments that are leftovers from the process of assembling antibody DNA in B cells.

In a mix and match process called VDJ recombination, B cells use one of many V, D, and J segments to form their antibody genes. What Dale and Jacob were looking at occurs after the VDJ step, when B cells get stimulated as part of an immune response.

They analyzed the patterns of mutations in human and mouse antibody genes, and found that mutations tend to come together, in a way that suggests that they are being copied from leftover V segments. They call this pattern “tem Read more

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Emory Microbiome Research Center inaugural symposium

Interest in bacteria and other creatures living on and inside us keeps climbing. On August 15 and 16, scientists from a wide array of disciplines will gather for the Emory Microbiome Research Center inaugural symposium.

On the first day, Lab Land is looking forward to hearing from several of the speakers, touching on topics stretching from insects/agricultural pathogens to neurodegenerative disease. The second day is a hands on workshop organized by instructor Anna Knight on sorting through microbiome data. The symposium will be at WHSCAB (Woodruff Health Sciences Center Auditorium). Registration before August 2 is encouraged!

Many of the projects that we highlighted four years ago, when Emory held its first microbiome symposium, have continued and gathered momentum. Guest keynotes are from Rodney Newberry from WUSTL and Gary Wu from Penn.

 

Read more

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Mouse version of 3q29 deletion: insights into schizophrenia/ASD pathways

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have created a mouse model of human 3q29 deletion syndrome, which is expected to provide insights into the genetic underpinnings of both schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder.

In 3q29 deletion syndrome, a stretch of DNA containing several genes is missing from one of a child’s chromosomes. The deletion usually occurs spontaneously rather than being inherited. Affected individuals have a higher risk of developing intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorder. 3q29 deletion is one of the strongest genetic risk factors for schizophrenia, and the Emory researchers see investigating it as a way of unraveling schizophrenia’s biological and genetic complexity.

The results were published in Molecular Psychiatry.

“We see these mice as useful tools for understanding the parts of the brain whose development is perturbed by 3q29 deletion, and how it affects males and females differently,” says Jennifer Mulle, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics. “They are also a starting point for dissecting individual genes within the 3q29 deletion.”

Working with clinicians and psychologists at Marcus Autism Center, Mulle is leading an ongoing study of 3q29 deletion’s effects in humans, and observations from the mice are expected to inform these efforts. (More about Mulle here.) Read more

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B cells off the rails early in lupus

New research on the autoimmune disease systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) provides hints to the origins of the puzzling disorder. The results are published in Nature Immunology.

In people with SLE, their B cells – part of the immune system – are abnormally activated. That makes them produce antibodies that react against their own tissues, causing a variety of symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes and kidney problems.

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine could discern that in people with SLE, signals driving expansion and activation are present at an earlier stage of B cell differentiation than previously appreciated. They identified patterns of gene activity that could be used as biomarkers for disease development.

Activation can be observed at an early stage of B cell differentiation: resting naive cells (pink ellipse). Adapted from Jenks et al Immunity (2018).

“Our data indicate a disease signature across all cell subsets, and importantly on mature resting B cells, suggesting that such cells may have been exposed to disease-inducing signals,” the authors write.

The paper reflects a collaboration between the laboratories of Jeremy Boss, PhD, chairman of microbiology and immunology, and Ignacio (Iñaki) Sanz, MD, head of the division of rheumatology in the Department of Medicine. Sanz, recipient of the 2019 Lupus Insight Prize from the Lupus Research Alliance, is director of the Lowance Center for Human Immunology and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. The first author is Christopher Scharer, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology.

The researchers studied blood samples from 9 African American women with SLE and 12 healthy controls. They first sorted the B cells into subsets, and then looked at the DNA in the women’s B cells, analyzing the patterns of gene activity. Sanz’s team had previously observed that people with SLE have an expansion of “activated naïve” and DN2 B cells, especially during flares, periods when their symptoms are worse. Read more

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Head to head narcolepsy/hypersomnia study

At the sleep research meeting in San Antonio this year, there were signs of an impending pharmaceutical arms race in the realm of narcolepsy.

The big fish in a small pond, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, was preparing to market its recently FDA-approved medication: Sunosi/solriamfetol. Startup Harmony Biosciences was close behind with pitolisant, already approved in Europe. On the horizon are experimental drugs designed to more precisely target the neuropeptide deficiency in people with classic narcolepsy type 1 (for narcolepsy with cataplexy: hypocretin/orexin agonists).

Amidst this commercial maneuvering, a new clinical trial is underway at Emory Sleep Center. The study compares modafinil versus amphetamines for narcolepsy type 2 (NT2) and idiopathic hypersomnia (IH).

These are not new drugs; they are old standards, when used to treat other sleep disorders. What’s remarkable here is that they are being tested “head-to-head.” In addition, the study explicitly tracks outcomes that people with NT2 and IH often talk about: sleep inertia, or difficulty waking up and getting out of bed in the morning, and brain fog, which is difficulty thinking/concentrating/paying attention. The main outcome measure is the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which asks how likely someone is to fall asleep during daytime situations such as reading or while stopped in traffic. Read more

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