Genomics plus human intelligence

The power of gene sequencing to solve puzzles when combined with human Read more

'Master key' microRNA has links to both ASD and schizophrenia

Recent studies of complex brain disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have identified a few "master keys," risk genes that sit at the center of a network of genes important for brain function. Researchers at Emory and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have created mice partially lacking one of those master keys, called MIR-137, and have used them to identify an angle on potential treatments for ASD. The results were published this Read more

Shape-shifting RNA regulates viral sensor

OAS senses double-stranded RNA: the form that viral genetic material often takes. Its regulator is also Read more

Paris “Hands Over” to Atlanta for AIDS Vaccine 2010

Eric Hunter, PhD

Eric Hunter, PhD

As the AIDS Vaccine 2009 conference concluded today in Paris with more than 1,000 scientists in attendance, Eric Hunter, PhD, co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, accepted the “hand over” for next year’s international conference in Atlanta.

The Emory CFAR will serve as local Atlanta host of AIDS Vaccine 2010, which takes place next Sept. 28 to Oct. 1, led by the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. The conference will bring scientists, community advocates, funders and policy makers from around the world to Atlanta to hear cutting edge scientific results, exchange new ideas, educate future leaders and engage a diverse group of scientists in the quest for an AIDS vaccine.

A number of Emory scientists were in attendance in Paris at AIDS Vaccine 2009. Hunter was interviewed by several news organizations, including the Lehrer News Hour and Science magazine, about the results of a recently concluded AIDS vaccine trial conducted by the United States and Thailand. The complete results of the trial were released at the meeting and also published online this week by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Hunter was among 22 scientists who initially had criticized the trial in a 2004 Science editorial. After seeing the full results and analysis of the trial this week, Hunter commented from the Paris meeting:

“The complete data from the trial indicate that it was modestly effective in preventing HIV-1 infection. However, it will likely be difficult to establish the mechanism by which the vaccine protected participants and additional studies will be needed. This positive result, though, gives a much needed boost to efforts aimed at developing an HIV-1 vaccine and takes the field from the position of perhaps an impossible goal to a possible goal.”

Hunter will chair AIDS Vaccine 2010 in Atlanta, along with co-chairs James Curran, MD, MPH, dean, Rollins School of Public Health; Carlos del Rio, MD, Hubert professor and chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health, Rollins School of Public Health; and Harriet Robinson, PhD, senior vice president of research and development, GeoVax and emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University.

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Teens and crime: the Supreme Court to decide outcome

Emory’s Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, occasionally blogs for Psychology Today in a blog titled plus2sd.

Gregory Berns, MD, PhD

Gregory Berns, MD, Ph

Berns’ most recent blog taps his expertise on the use of brain-imaging technologies to understand human motivation and decision-making, as well as the biology of adolescent decision-making and the effects of peer pressure on risk attitudes.

In a blog called “My Immature Brain Made Me Do It?” he covers an upcoming case before the U.S. Supreme Court on life sentences for adolescents. Berns is Emory Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics and director of the Center for Neuropolicy, and a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine.

He writes: “On November 9th, 2009 the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the 8th amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits courts from sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole for the commission of a non-homicide. The elephant in the room, and the thing that the Court has taken deliberate steps to leave out of its rulings in the past, is the human brain.

Numerous briefs have been submitted by mental health advocacy groups suggesting that the brain is not fully mature until the mid-20’s. But come November, the Court should once again ignore the growing drumbeat to blame the immature brain and leave neuroscience out of its decision.

But there are serious flaws with the “immature brain made me do it” argument. In fact, my group recently published a study calling this argument into question (PLoS One, 2009). All of the neuroscience findings cited in the briefs rely on a correlation of brain structure with either age or a measurement of cognitive function.

Correlation means that you take one measurement and see how it changes with some other measurement. While on average, these conclusions are statistically valid, there is too much variation from one person to another to draw conclusions about any one individual. But you won’t find individual variability mentioned in any of these briefs.”

To read more about Berns’ recent study findings, visit Emory’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center.

Or view a video:

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Why vaccine compliance matters

An outbreak of measles in the state of Washington last year sickened 19 children. Of those who fell ill, 18 had something in common—they were not vaccinated.

Saad Omer aims to increase vaccine compliance to prevent childhood diseases.

Saad Omer aims to increase vaccine compliance to prevent childhood diseases.

For Emory Rollins School of Public Health researcher Saad Omer, the Washington outbreak is a perfect example of the effect on an entire community when individuals are unimmunized. His research aims to shed light on ways to encourage increased vaccine compliance for adults and their children.

Omer says vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, influenza, and pertussis often start among persons who forego vaccinations, spread rapidly within unvaccinated populations, and also spread to other subpopulations.

In a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, Omer and his colleagues reviewed evidence from several states showing that vaccine refusal due to nonmedical reasons puts children in communities with high rates of refusal at higher risk for infectious diseases such as measles and whooping cough.

Even children whose parents do not refuse vaccination are put at risk because “herd immunity” normally protects children who are too young to be vaccinated, who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, or whose immune systems do not respond sufficiently to vaccination.

Research findings indicate that everyone who lives in a community with a high proportion of unvaccinated individuals has an elevated risk of developing a vaccine-preventable disease.

Read more about Omer’s research on vaccine refusals in the fall 2009 issue of Public Health magazine.

Omer also discusses the importance of vaccinating against the H1N1 virus in an Oct. 16 article in The New York Times.

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Teaching students to be doctors: connections made

The Emory School of Medicine’s new curriculum was introduced in 2007 in order to create connections between faculty and students that last throughout the entire four years of medical school, “longitudinal” relationships much like those that should exist ideally between doctors and their patients.

Students practice providing exams

Students practice medical exams

Based on the kind of students who are attracted to Emory and on what they learn and model from their faculty mentors, these students are expected to grow not just in knowledge during their time at Emory, but also in compassion, curiosity, and commitment—and to use these traits wisely in serving their profession and community.

At the heart of the curriculum is a highly popular system of faculty advisers, each faculty mentor paired with eight or nine students.

These groupings are designated as “societies” named for historical medical luminaries—for example, Osler, Semmelweis, Lister, Harvey.

Faculty advisers who lead these societies in each class are chosen carefully, their salaries underwritten by the medical school so they can relinquish three half-days per week from their regular clinical and/or research duties to spend time with some or all of “their” students.

As the class of 2011 moves through the new curriculum, all now have completed the 18-month Foundations of Medicine phase, a whole-person approach section that combines clinical medicine and basic fundamentals of science, social sciences, humanities and public health.

This is not my father’s or mother’s medical school experience, students say. In the introduction-to-neuroscience module, for example, faculty share the classroom with a baseball player, who demonstrates and explains what a center fielder has to do to catch a fly ball or what a batter must consider before swinging at a ball leaving the pitcher’s hand at 95 mph.

Learn more about the curriculum in the 2009 Emory School of Medicine annual report, and more about the school in Emory Medicine. Read a message from Dean Thomas J. Lawley, MD.

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Children’s 1,000th pediatric transplant recognized

Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta transplant surgeon Stuart Knechtle, MD, and his surgical team recently performed the 1,000th solid organ transplant on a Children’s patient. The milestone operation was performed on a child who received a liver through the Children’s Transplant Center.

Stuart Knechtle, MD

Stuart Knechtle, MD

Knechtle is chief of the Emory School of Medicine transplant division and professor of surgery, and surgical director of Children’s Liver Transplant Program. Children’s Liver Transplant program was founded in 1990 and has completed more than 300 liver transplants.

The liver transplant team is made up of many individuals who contribute to its success – liver transplant surgeons, transplant hepatologists (doctors with expertise in the treatment of the liver), and a team of gastroenterologists, anesthesiologists, pathologists, radiologists, mental health specialists, chaplains, nurses, social workers and pharmacists.

For more than 20 years, Emory and Children’s physicians have been at the forefront of pediatric transplant care, achieving several groundbreaking accomplishments, including:

  • Transplanted the world’s youngest (10 days old) and three smallest (2 to 4 pounds) liver transplant recipients
  • One of the first pediatric hospitals in the United States to perform three heart transplants in 24 hours
  • At the forefront of its field with ABO-incompatible liver and heart transplants
  • Performed more than 450 pediatric kidney transplants.
Children's kidney transplant recipient Quinn Roberts, age 8, poses with her donor Cheryl Thomas

Children’s kidney transplant recipient Quinn Roberts, age 8, with her donor Cheryl Thomas

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An invitation to be healthy and stay healthy

Predictive Health blog photoThere’s a place in Midtown Atlanta called the Center for Health Discovery and Well Being, where people can go to be healthy and stay healthy.

This fresh approach to wellness marks a new model of healthcare called predictive health, which focuses on defining and maintaining health rather than treating disease.

The Center for Health Discovery and Well Being collects and analyzes physical, medical and lifestyle histories, and up to 50 different blood and plasma tests to create a personalized health action plan for each participant. Participants also act as research partners, as data from their assessments is used to discover and develop predictive markers of health and well being. Those markers are ultimately used to create health-related interventions. What’s more, the center is part of a research partnership between Emory and Georgia Tech called the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute.

Located on the 18th floor of the Medical Office Tower (MOT) at Emory University Hospital Midtown, the center occupies an architecturally innovative atmosphere that includes flowing spaces, soothing colors, and a big city view.

Healthy individuals, including those with well-controlled chronic conditions, may enroll in the Center.

The Center for Health Discovery and Well Being web site offers detailed information, testimonials, and an application for participation.

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Look, don’t touch – noninvasive biochemistry

Much of the time in biochemistry, when you want to know what’s happening inside a cell you have to break them open.

Fluorescent proteins are a great tool and deserved their Nobel Prize. But you have to convince your favorite cells to make the fluorescent proteins first. It’s possible to think of specialized non-invasive probes too: dyes that change color when they encounter calcium, for example.

Now imagine being able to decipher what’s going on inside cells simply by looking at them and watching the proteins and organelles shift in response to signals. That’s essentially what Yuhong Du and Haian Fu at the Emory Chemical Biology Discovery Center have been able to do.

They use an “optical biosensor” which puts cells in front of a reflective grating. Depending on how the grating reflects light, they can measure mass redistribution inside the cells.

How the optical biosensor works

How the optical biosensor works

With this technology, they could watch for responses as cancer cells responded to signals from EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor).

Drugs such as gefitinib and erlotinib are supposed to block those growth signals in lung cancer cells, but not every cancer responds to them. These results suggest that the optical biosensor system could be used to screen for compounds that block EGFR and many other receptors, potentially speeding up the hunt for drugs against several diseases.

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Posttraumatic stress disorder fed by avoidance

Service members returning from war historically have been haunted by traumatic memories related to combat. Problems can arise when these troublesome memories are suppressed instead of being confronted.

The military trains its service members well for combat, but teaching each individual how to deal emotionally with the trauma that comes with it is a challenge that has yet to be resolved. Unfortunately, many of those brave men and women have trouble admitting or recognizing an emotional problem. They tend to believe that avoiding troublesome memories is the best solution and do not come forward for help.

Once a service member returns home from a war zone, symptoms caused by haunting memories can arise and begin to interfere with every day activities. When those symptoms last for more than four weeks, it is likely that individual has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Emory researcher Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Emory School of Medicine, and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program, has been treating military personnel with posttraumatic stress for more than a decade, helping them to learn how to deal with the troubling memories. Through exposure therapy, the service members are taught that by re-living the traumatic event, they can begin to handle those memories when they surface.

Rothbaum is also a pioneer in exposure therapy using virtual reality software that was developed for both Vietnam veterans and service members returning from the war in Iraq.

Military commanders recognize that symptoms of PTSD are not as obvious as a physical injury, but nonetheless just as important, and they are ready to develop programs to quickly identify and treat active duty service members and veterans who are showing symptoms of PTSD before they worsen, says Rothbaum.

PTSD is treatable and treatments vary from exposure therapy to medication to meditation techniques. Symptoms include reliving the event; avoiding situations that stir up memories of the event; discomfort expressing feelings; being constantly on the lookout for danger; irritability; drinking or drug problems and employment, social and relationship problems.

More information on PTSD is available from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A clinical trial taking place at Emory uses virtual reality therapy for military personnel from Iraq who have PTSD.

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Congrats to the telomere/ribosome Nobelists

Congratulations to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine. The award is for their work on telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten with every cell division and need specialized enzymes to be replenished.

Greider, Blackburn and Szostak discovered telomerase, the enzyme that copies the ends of chromosomes using a special RNA template. Telomerase is turned off in most human cells, but cancer cells often must reactivate it so that they can keep dividing like crazy.

The discovery of telomerase has led to new leads for potential anticancer drugs. This is a good example of the impact basic research can have on medicine, since the prize-winners were not thinking about anticancer drugs in the 1980s when they were doing their work.

Telomeres are specialized protective structures at the ends of chromosomes

Telomeres are specialized protective structures at the ends of chromosomes

The telomere trio’s work relates to several lines of research at Emory.

Immunologist Cornelia Weyand and her colleagues have shown that the telomeres of T cells are abnormally shortened in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. In effect, their cells’ chromosomes are prematurely aged. This result provides some hints on how to treat autoimmune diseases.

If blood-forming stem cells can’t keep their telomeres in shape, they can’t continue to regenerate the blood. Pathologist Hinh Ly’s research has made a connection between genetic defects in telomere maintenance and bone marrow failure syndrome in human patients.

Geneticists Christa Martin and David Ledbetter have been probing the relationship between mutations or recombination in the regions of the chromosome adjacent to telomeres and developmental disorders such as autism and mental retardation.

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to Venki Ramakrishnan, Tom Steitz and Ada Yonath, has an even stronger connection to Emory. Christine Dunham, part of a growing contingent of crystallographers here, worked on ribosome structure in Ramakrishnan’s lab at the MRC.

The ribosome is a machine that decodes mRNA and produces protein step by step

The ribosome is a machine that decodes mRNA and produces protein step by step

She is examining the molecular details of how antibiotics and viruses perturb ribosome function.

What the two Nobels have in common is that they both honor work on molecular machines containing RNA, connections to the ancient, shadowy “RNA world“.

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Heart and depression: learning from twins

Just like diabetes and hypertension, depression is a prevalent medical condition that is highly treatable. However, if ignored, it appears to increase the risk for heart disease. Researchers at Emory are continuing studies related to the link between depression and heart disease as a result of a 2-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Lead investigator, Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, professor of cardiology at Emory School of Medicine, is looking at the relationship between depression and heart disease, specifically researching the potential mechanisms.

Vaccarino says although depression has been implicated as a risk factor for heart disease for many years, there is still question whether this is a causal association or whether there are other reasons why people who are depressed may be more likely to get heart disease. Clarification of these mechanisms will improve our understanding of the disease and ultimately point to more effective primary prevention strategies for the identification and treatment of high-risk individuals.

Vaccarino and her team will study twin males born between 1946 and 1956 from the Vietnam Era Twin Registry comparing one twin who has depression and one who does not. She says this is almost a natural experiment, allowing researchers to separate out genetics and influences from the environment or behavior.

Vaccarino will be looking at myocardial blood flow measured with PET, a common imaging technique of the heart. It can quantify exactly how much blood is going to the coronary arteries in the heart and carefully determine if depression is associated with decreased blood flow to the heart.

This grant builds on a previous project looking at the same population of twins and allows researchers to bring these twins back and compare two time points. Researchers measured myocardial blood flow with PET a few years ago and will now be able to monitor progression of heart disease over time

Learn more about Emory’s stimulus grant funding.

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