The journey of a marathon sleeper

A marathon sleeper who got away left some clues for Emory and University of Florida scientists to Read more

A push for reproducibility in biomedical research

At Emory, several scientists are making greater efforts to push forward to improve scientific research and combat what is being called “the reproducibility crisis.” Guest post from Erica Read more

Exosomes as potential biomarkers of radiation exposure

Exosomes = potential biomarkers of radiation in the Read more

Excellent exosomes harvest cardiac regenerative capacity

Thanks to biomedical engineer Mike Davis for writing an explanation of “Exosomes: what do we love so much about them?” for Circulation Research, a companion to his lab’s November 2016 publication analyzing exosomes secreted by human cardiac progenitor cells.

We can think of exosomes as tiny packages that cells send each other. They’re secreted bubbles containing proteins and regulatory RNAs. Thus, they may be a way to harvest the regenerative capacity of pediatric heart tissue without delivering the cells themselves.

Mike Davis, PhD is director of the Children’s Heart Research and Outcomes Center (HeRO), part of the Emory/Children’s/Georgia Tech Pediatric Research Alliance

Davis’ lab studied cardiac tissue derived from children of different ages undergoing surgery for congenital heart defects. The scientists isolated exosomes from the cardiac progenitor cells, and tested their regenerative activity in rats with injured hearts.

They found that exosomes derived from older children’s cells were only reparative if they were subjected to hypoxic conditions (lack of oxygen), while exosomes from newborns’  cells improved rats’  cardiac function with or without hypoxia. Read more

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Revived T cells still need fuel

Cancer immunotherapy drugs blocking the PD-1 pathway – known as checkpoint inhibitors – are now FDA-approved for melanoma, lung cancer and several other types of cancer. These drugs are often described as “releasing the brakes” on dysfunctional T cells.

A new study from Emory Vaccine Center and Winship Cancer Institute researchers shows that even if the PD-1-imposed brakes are released, the tumor-specific T cells still need “fuel” to expand in numbers and restore effective immune responses. That fuel comes from co-stimulation through a molecule called CD28.

The results were published Thursday by the journal Science.

Despite the success of PD-1-targeting drugs, many patients’ tumors do not respond to them. The study’s findings indicate that CD28’s presence on T cells could be a clinical biomarker capable of predicting whether drugs targeting PD-1 will be effective. In addition, the requirement for CD28 suggests that co-stimulation may be missing for some patients, which could guide the design of combination therapies.

For the rest of our press release and quotes from authors Rafi Ahmed, Alice Kamphorst and Suresh Ramalingam, please go here. For some additional links and thoughts on PD-1 and CD28, read on:

Read more

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Direct reprogramming into endothelial cells

Direct reprogramming has become a trend in the regenerative medicine field. It means taking readily available cells, such as skin cells or blood cells, and converting them into cells that researchers want for therapeutic purposes, skipping the stem cell stage.

In a way, this approach follows in Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka’s footsteps, but it also tunnels under the mountain he climbed. Direct reprogramming has been achieved for target cell types such as neurons and insulin-producing beta cells.

Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD

In Circulation Research, Emory stem cell biologist Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD and colleagues recently reported converting human skin fibroblast cells into endothelial cells, which line and maintain the health of blood vessels.

Once reprogrammed, a patient’s own cells could potentially be used to treat conditions such as peripheral artery disease, or to form vascular grafts. Exactly how reprogrammed cells should be deployed clinically still needs to be worked out.

In cardiovascular disease, many clinical trials have been performed using bone marrow cells that were not reprogrammed. Emory readers may be familiar with studies conducted by Arshed Quyyumi, MD and colleagues, in which treatment was delivered after patients’ heart attacks. In those studies, sorted progenitor cells, some of which could become endothelial cells, were introduced into the heart. To provide the observed effects, the introduced cells were more likely supplying supportive growth factors.

In contrast, Yoon’s team is able to produce cells that already have endothelial character hammered into them. The authors have applied for a patent. The co-first authors were instructor Sang-Ho Lee, PhD and Changwon Park, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics. Read more

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Zika immunology from returned travelers

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston last weekend, Emory Vaccine Center researcher Mark Mulligan presented some limited findings on immune responses in Zika-infected humans, who were returned US travelers or expatriates.

The results were intriguing, despite the small number of study participants: five, two of whom were pregnant. Detailed information has not been available about immune responses against Zika in humans, especially T cell responses.

Highlights from Mulligan’s abstract:

*All five seemed to have a hole in their immune systems – functional antiviral “killer” CD8 T cells were rare, despite activation of CD8 T cells in general and strong responses from other cell types.

*Cross-reactive immune responses, based on previous exposure to dengue and/or yellow fever vaccine, may have blunted Zika’s peak.

*”Even with prolonged maternal viremia, both pregnancies resulted in live births of apparently healthy babies.” Read more

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Clues to how anti-integrin antibody suppresses SIV

In October 2016, Emory and NIAID researchers published results in Science that surprised the HIV/AIDS field.

They showed that treatment with an antibody, on top of antiretroviral drugs, could lead to long-term viral suppression in SIV-infected monkeys. A similar antibody is already approved for Crohn’s disease, and a clinical trial has begun at NIAID testing the effects in people living with HIV.

The HIV/AIDS field is still puzzling over a study led by Emory pathologist Tab Ansari.

All that was achieved even though HIV/AIDS experts are still puzzled by how the antibody works. Last week, Christina Guzzo,with NIAID director Anthony Fauci’s lab, presented new data at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle that provide some clues. But the broader issue of “what is the antibody doing?” is still open.

Let’s back up a bit. The antibody used in the Science paper targets a molecule called integrin alpha 4 beta 7, usually described as a “gut homing receptor” for CD4+ T cells, which are ravaged by HIV and SIV infection.  Study leader Aftab Ansari (right) and Fauci have both said their idea was to stop T cells from circulating into the gut, a major site of damage during acute viral infection.

Integrin alpha 4 beta 7 was also known to interact with the HIV envelope protein. Accordingly, it is possible to imagine some possibilities for what an antibody against integrin alpha 4 beta 7 could be doing: it could be driving T cells to different places in the body or affecting the T cells somehow, or it could be interfering with interactions between SIV and the cells it infects.

The new data from NIAID say that integrin alpha 4 beta 7 is found on the virus itself. This finding makes sense, because SIV and HIV are enveloped viruses — they steal the clothes of the cells they infect and emerge from. [Integrin alpha 4 beta 7 also appears to help the virus be more infectious in the gut, Guzzo’s presentation says.]

So a third possibility appears: the anti-alpha 4 beta 7 antibody is mopping up virus. Perhaps it’s acting like a virus-neutralizing antibody or the anti-CD4 antibody ibalizumab — CD4 is the main viral receptor on T cells. It could explain why the anti-integrin antibody’s effect is so durable; HIV/SIV can mutate to escape neutralizing antibodies directed against the viral envelope protein, but it can’t mutate the clothes it steals! Read more

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‘Matchmaker’ role for protein behind SMA

Motor neurons connect the spinal cord to the muscles. They can be a meter long in adult humans. SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) affects approximately 1 in 10,000 babies. It impairs the ability to move and breathe, and in its most severe form, kills before the age of two.

A puzzling question has lurked behind SMA (spinal muscular atrophy), the leading genetic cause of death in infants.

The disorder leads to reduced levels of the SMN (survival of motor neurons) protein, which is thought to be involved in processing RNA, something that occurs in every cell in the body. So why does interfering with a process that happens everywhere affect motor neurons first?

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have been building a case for an answer. It’s because motor neurons have long axons. And RNA must be transported to the end of the axons for motor neurons to survive and keep us moving, eating and breathing.

Now the Emory researchers have a detailed picture for what they think the SMN protein is doing, and how its deficiency causes problems in SMA patients’ cells. The findings are published in Cell Reports.

Wilfried Rossoll, PhD in the lab.

“Our model explains the specificity — why motor neurons are so vulnerable to reductions in SMN,” says Wilfried Rossoll, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine [and soon moving to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville]. “What’s new is that we have a mechanism.”

Rossoll and his colleagues showed that the SMN protein is acting like a “matchmaker” for messenger RNA that needs partners to transport it into the cell axon.

RNA carries messages from DNA, huddled in the nucleus, to the rest of the cell so that proteins can be produced locally. But RNA can’t do that on its own, Rossoll says. In the paper, the scientists call SMN a “molecular chaperone.” That means SMN helps RNA hook up with processing and transport proteins, but doesn’t stay attached once the connections are made.

“It loads the truck, but it’s not on the truck,” Rossoll says. [Read the rest of Emory’s press release here.]

He also tells me that even though the two diseases affect very different age groups, SMA and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) have two things in common: they both affect motor neurons and they both involve proteins that transport RNA. He says an emerging idea in the field is that SMA represents a problem of “hypo-assembly” while ALS is a problem of “hyper-assembly.”

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Parkinson’s disease: hold the AMPs

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and colleagues recently published a paper in PNAS that may have implications for Parkinson’s disease pathology and treatment strategies.

The protein alpha-synuclein is a bad actor in PD (nice explainer from Michael J. Fox Foundation); it’s a major constituent of Lewy bodies, the protein clumps that appear in PD patients’ brains, and there is a genetic link too. Alpha-synuclein seems to bring other proteins into the clumps, which may disrupt neuron function.

In particular, it sequesters PIKE-L, an inhibitor of AMP kinase, leading to AMP kinase hyperactivation and cell death. AMP kinase is a metabolic regulator activated by metformin, a common treatment for diabetes. So activating AMP kinase in some situations can be good for your body; however for the neurons affected by alpha-synuclein, activating it too much is bad.

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Zika virus blindfolds immune alarm cells

Important immune alarm cells — dendritic cells — are fighting Zika virus with an arm tied behind their backs, scientists from Emory Vaccine Center report.

Dendritic cells are “sentinel” cells that alert the rest of the immune system when they detect viral infection. When Zika virus infects them, it shuts down interferon signaling, one route for mustering the antiviral troops. However, another antiviral pathway called RIG-I-like receptor (RLR) signaling is left intact and could be a target for immunity-boosting therapies, the researchers say.

Mehul Suthar, PhD in the lab with graduate students Kendra Quicke and James Bowen

The findings were published on Feb. 2 in PLOS Pathogens.

Zika was known to disrupt interferon signaling, but Emory researchers have observed that it does so in ways that are distinct from other related flaviviruses, such as Dengue virus and West Nile virus. The findings give additional insight into how Zika virus is able to counter human immune defenses. Read more

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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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