Update on SIV remission studies

Recently presented insights on how an antibody used to treat intestinal diseases can suppress Read more

Granulins treasure not trash - potential FTD treatment strategy

Granulins are of interest to neuroscientists because mutations in the granulin gene cause frontotemporal dementia (FTD). However, the functions of granulins were previously Read more

Blood vessels and cardiac muscle cells off the shelf

How to steer induced pluripotent stem cells into becoming endothelial cells, which line blood Read more

The very first cells

Please welcome cell biologist Dorothy Lerit to Emory.

Dorothy Lerit, PhD

She was the lead author on a recent Cell Reports paper on primordial germ cell formation in Drosophila, along with colleagues from NHLBI, where she was a postdoc, as well as Princeton, UVA and Columbia. Primordial germ cells are the cells that are destined to become sperm or eggs.

Germ cells are the very first cells that form out of the embryo, Lerit says. Lab Land is reminded of Lewis Wolpert’s claim that gastrulation – the separation of an apparently uniform group of embryonic cells into three germ layers — is “truly the most important time in your life.” Germ cell specification, certainly important from the viewpoint of future generations, occurs even before gastrulation.

In the Cell Reports paper, Lerit was examining the function of a particular gene called Germ cell-less; remember that Drosophila genes are often named after the effects of a mutation in the gene.

Drosophila development is superficially quite different from that of mammals. In particular, for a while the early embryo becomes a bag full of cell nuclei — without membranes separating them — known as a syncytium. This is the time when Germ cell-less function is important.

Amazing picture of germ cell formation from HHMI/Nature Cell Biology/Ruth Lehmann’s lab https://www.hhmi.org/node/16760/devel

Lerit’s background is in studying the centrosome, the place in the cell where microtubules meet, and critical for orderly cell division and for ensuring that “germline fate determinants” are sequestered to the right primordial cells.

Despite the differences between insect and mammalian embryo development, the function of Germ cell-less seems to have been conserved in evolution since problems with the human version of the gene are linked to sterility in men.

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Access to HIV’s hideouts: T cells that take on their own

Police procedural television shows, such as Law + Order, have introduced many to the Internal Affairs Bureau: police officers that investigate other police officers. This group of unloved cops comes to mind in connection with the HIV/AIDS research published this week by Rama Amara’s lab at Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory Vaccine Center.

“Killer” antiviral T cells (red spots) can be found in germinal centers. The green areas are B cell follicles, which HIV researchers have identified as major reservoirs for the virus. Image courtesy of Rama Amara.

HIV infection is hard to get rid of for many reasons, but one is that the virus infects the cells in the immune system that act like police officers. The “helper” CD4 T cells that usually support immune responses become infected themselves. For the immune system to fight HIV effectively, the “killer” CD8 antiviral T cells would need to take on their own CD4 colleagues.

When someone is HIV-positive and is taking antiretroviral drugs, the virus is mostly suppressed but sticks around in a reservoir of inactive infected cells. Those cells hide out in germinal centers, specialized areas of lymph nodes, which most killer antiviral T cells don’t have access to. A 2015 Nature Medicine paper describes B cell follicles, which are part of germinal centers, as “sanctuaries” for persistent viral replication. (Imagine some elite police unit that has become corrupt, and uniformed cops can’t get into the places where the elite ones hang out. The analogy may be imperfect, but might help us visualize these cells.)

Amara’s lab has identified a group of antiviral T cells that do have the access code to germinal centers, a molecule called CXCR5. Knowing how to induce antiviral T cells displaying CXCR5 will be important for designing better therapeutic vaccines, as well as efforts to suppress HIV long-term, Amara says. The paper was published in PNAS this week. Read more

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More on NMDA receptor variants + epilepsy/ID

NMDA receptors are complex electrochemical machines, important for signaling between brain cells. Rare mutations in the corresponding genes cause epilepsy and intellectual disability.

Pre-M1 helices in multi-subunit NMDA receptor. Adapted from Ogden et al PLOS Genetics (2017).

In Emory’s Department of Pharmacology, the Traynelis and Yuan labs have been harvesting the vast amounts of information now available from public genome databases, to better understand how changes in the NMDA receptor genes relate to function. (Take a “deeper dive” into their November 2016 publication on this topic here.)

Their recent paper in PLOS Genetics focuses on a particular region in the NMDA receptor, called the pre-M1 helix (see figure). It also includes experiments on whether drugs now used for Alzheimer’s disease, such as memantine, could be repurposed to have beneficial effects for patients with certain mutations. The in vitro data reported here could inform clinical use. Read more

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Lampreys and the reverse spy problem

Call it the reverse spy problem. If you were a spy who wanted to gain access to a top secret weapons factory, your task would be to fit in. The details of your employee badge, for example, should look just right.

As described in this 2016 JCI Insight paper, Emory and University of Toronto investigators wanted to do the opposite. They were aiming to develop antibody tools for studying and manipulating plasma cells, which are the immune system’s weapons factories, where antibody production takes place. The situation is flipped when we’re talking about antibodies. Here, the goal is to stand out.

Do these guys look like good spies?

Monoclonal antibodies are classic biomedical tools (and important anticancer drugs). But it’s tricky to develop antibodies against the places where antibodies themselves are made, because of the way the immune system develops. To guard against autoimmune disease, antibodies that would react against substances in the body are often edited out.

To get around this obstacle, researchers used organisms that have very different immune systems from humans: lampreys. Emory’s Max Cooper and colleagues had already shown how lampreys have molecules — variable lymphocyte receptors or VLRs — that function like antibodies, but don’t look like them, in terms of their molecular structure.

From the paper:

We reasoned that the unique protein architecture of VLR Abs and the great evolutionary distance between lampreys and humans would allow the production of novel VLRB Abs against biomedically relevant antigens against which conventional Abs are not readily produced because of structural or tolerogenic constraints.

Senior author Goetz Ehrhardt, now at University of Toronto, used to be in Cooper’s lab, and their two labs worked together on the JCI Insight paper. Read more

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Provocative prions may protect yeast cells from stress

Prions have a notorious reputation. They cause neurodegenerative disease, namely mad cow/Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. And the way these protein particles propagate – getting other proteins to join the pile – can seem insidious.

Yet prion formation could represent a protective response to stress, research from Emory University School of Medicine and Georgia Tech suggests.

A yeast protein called Lsb2, which can trigger prion formation by other proteins, actually forms a “metastable” prion itself in response to elevated temperatures, the scientists report.

The results were published this week in Cell Reports.

Higher temperatures cause proteins to unfold; this is a major stress for yeast cells as well as animal cells, and triggers a “heat shock” response. Prion formation could be an attempt by cells to impose order upon an otherwise chaotic jumble of misfolded proteins, the scientists propose.

A glowing red clump can be detected in yeast cells containing a Lsb2 prion (left), because Lsb2 is hooked up to a red fluorescent protein. In other cells lacking prion activity (right), the Lsb2 fusion protein is diffuse.

“What we found suggests that Lsb2 could be the regulator of a broader prion-forming response to stress,” says Keith Wilkinson, PhD, professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine.

The scientists call the Lsb2 prion metastable because it is maintained in a fraction of cells after they return to normal conditions but is lost in other cells. Lsb2 is a short-lived, unstable protein, and mutations that keep it around longer increase the stability of the prions.

The Cell Reports paper was the result of collaboration between Wilkinson, Emory colleague Tatiana Chernova, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry, and the laboratory of Yury Chernoff, PhD in Georgia Tech’s School of Biological Sciences.

“It’s fascinating that stress treatment may trigger a cascade of prion-like changes, and that the molecular memory of that stress can persist for a number of cell generations in a prion-like form,” Chernoff says.”Our further work is going to check if other proteins can respond to environmental stresses in a manner similar to Lsb2.” Read more

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How estrogen modulates fear learning — molecular insight into PTSD in women

Low estrogen levels may make women more susceptible to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some points in their menstrual cycles or lifetimes, while high estrogen levels may be protective.

New research from Emory University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School provides insight into how estrogen changes gene activity in the brain to achieve its protective effects.

The findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, could inform the design of preventive treatments aimed at reducing the risk of PTSD after someone is traumatized.

The scientists examined blood samples from 278 women from the Grady Trauma Project, a study of low-income Atlanta residents with high levels of exposure to violence and abuse. They analyzed maps of DNA methylation, a modification to the shape of DNA that is usually a sign of genes that are turned off.

The group included adult women of child-bearing age, in which estrogen rises and falls with the menstrual cycle, and women that had gone through menopause and had much lower estrogen levels.

“We knew that estrogen affects the activity of many genes throughout the genome,” says Alicia Smith, PhD, associate professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “But if you look at the estrogen-modulated sites that are also associated with PTSD, just one pops out.”

That site is located in a gene called HDAC4, known to be critical for learning and memory in mice. Genetic variation in HDAC4 among the women was linked to a lower level of HDAC4 gene activity and differences in their ability to respond to and recover from fear, and also differences in “resting state” brain imaging. Women with the same variation also showed stronger connections in activation between the amygdala and the cingulate cortex, two regions of the brain involved in fear learning. Read more

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Breath test for Parkinson’s?

Using one to see into the other. Left: canister for breath sample. Right: basal ganglia, a region of the brain usually affected by Parkinson’s.

Scientists think that it may be possible to detect signs of Parkinson’s disease through a breath test.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is supporting a clinical study at Emory that will probe this idea. Neuro-immunologist Malu Tansey is working with Hygieia, a Georgia-based company that has developed technology for analyzing volatile organic compounds present in exhaled air.

From the MJFF’s blog:

By collecting and analyzing breath samples in 100 people (50 non-smoking early-stage PD patients and 50 age and sex-matched controls), the researchers hope to define a unique inflammatory PD-specific breath fingerprint that could be used to predict and monitor disease in combination with blood analyses of conventional or newly discovered biomarkers.

“We hypothesize that breath volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) fingerprinting can enable sensitive and specific measures of ongoing inflammation and other processes implicated in the development and/or progression of PD, and thus could represent an early detection tool,” Tansey says.

If results indicate moving forward, Tansey says it will be important to compare the breath sample method against blood tests for inflammatory markers. Other reports on the breath test approach for Parkinson’s have been encouraging. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 1 Comment

Case report on first newborn to survive Ebola

Pediatric infectious diseases specialist Anita McElroy was a co-author on a case report on the first newborn to survive Ebola infection, published recently in Journal of Infectious Diseases.

“Of all the work I’ve been privileged to be involved in over the past few years, this paper was one of the most personally satisfying,” McElroy writes.

The child described in the paper is named Nubia; she is mentioned in several news stories from 2015. She was the last known Ebola case in Guinea, one of three African countries hit hard by the virus in 2014 and 2015. Her mother died shortly after her birth.

Nubia leaves hospital in Guinea. Photo from Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Nubia was cared for at the Ebola treatment ward run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, aka Doctors without Borders) in Conakry, Guinea. She was given three experimental therapies: ZMapp antibodies, survivor white blood cell transfusion and an antiviral drug called GS-5734. It is not clear which of these interventions were critical for Nubia’s recovery, although the paper makes clear that ZMapp did not result in viral suppression all by itself.

McElroy is a go-to person for studies of dangerous viruses such as Ebola, Lassa and Zika, partly because of her affiliation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Viral Special Pathogens Branch. She advised the MSF team on the use of the antiviral drug and other interventions.

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Melanoma mutation likes fat for fuel

Cancer cells love glucose, the simple sugar the body uses for energy, so a high-fat, low-carb diet should starve them, right?

Where does this idea come from? Most cancer cells display enhanced glucose uptake, a phenomenon known as the Warburg effect, after 1931 Nobel Prize winner Otto Warburg.

Resurgent interest in exploiting the Warburg effect was described by Sam Apple in NYT Magazine and by Bret Stetka for NPR. High-fat, low-carb “ketogenic” diets are known to be effective against some types of epilepsy, and have also been explored by endurance athletes. Ketogenic diets have been tried as a clinical countermeasure against cancer in a limited way, mainly in brain cancer.

Before everybody gets too excited, let’s think about how particular cancer-driving mutations affect cell metabolism, suggests Winship Cancer Institute researcher Jing Chen. His team’s work in mice suggests that cancers with a common melanoma mutation (BRAF V600E) will grow faster in response to a ketogenic diet. In addition, the Winship researchers found that lipid-lowering agents such as statins curb these cancers’ growth, even in the context of a more normal diet.

The results were published on January 12 in Cell Metabolism.

Caveats: the findings cover just one mutation and need to be tested clinically.

Consumers and cancer patients already get a lot of advice about the right diet to fight cancer, but this research points toward an intriguing concept:  a “precision diet,” tailored to an individual patient’s cancer.  Read more

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Double vision: seeing viruses by both light and electron microscopy

Advances in both light and electron microscopy are improving scientists’ ability to visualize viruses such as HIV, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), measles, influenza, and Zika in their native states.

Researchers from Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta developed workflows for cryo-correlative light and electron microscopy (cryo-CLEM), which were published in the January 2017 issue of Nature Protocols.

An example of the images of viruses obtainable with cryo-CLEM. Pseudotyped HIV-1 particles undergoing endocytosis. Viral membrane = light blue. Mature core = yellow. Clathrin cages = purple. From Hampton et al Nat. Protocols (2016)

Previously, many electron microscopy images of well-known viruses were obtained by studying purified virus preparations. Yet the process of purification can distort the structure of enveloped viruses, says Elizabeth R. Wright, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

Wright and her colleagues have refined techniques for studying viruses in the context of the cells they infect. That way, they can see in detail how viruses enter and are assembled in cells, or how genetic modifications alter viral structures or processing.

“Much of what is known about how some viruses replicate in cells is really a black box at the ultrastructural level,” she says. “We see ourselves as forming bridges between light and electron microscopy, and opening up new realms of biological questions.”

Wright is director of Emory’s Robert P. Apkarian Integrated Electron Microscopy Core and a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator. The co-first authors of the Nature Protocols paper are postdoctoral fellows Cheri Hampton, PhD. and Joshua Strauss, PhD, and graduate students Zunlong Ke and Rebecca Dillard.

The Wright lab’s work on cryo-CLEM includes collaborations with Gregory Melikyan in Emory’s Department of Pediatrics, Phil Santangelo in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, and Paul Spearman, now at Cincinnati Children’s.

For this technique, virus-infected or transfected cells are grown on fragile carbon-coated gold grids and then “vitrified,” meaning that they are cooled rapidly so that ice crystals do not form. Once cooled, the cells are examined by cryo-fluorescent light microscopy and cryo-electron tomography. Read more

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