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

Sensory connections spill over in synesthesia

Neuroscientists at Emory University have found that people who experience a mixing of the senses, known as synesthesia, are more sensitive to associations everyone has between the sounds of words and visual shapes. The results are published in the European Journal of Neuroscience.

Synesthesia is a stable trait, and estimated to be present in 1 to 4 percent of people. It can be inherited, although the precise genes have not been identified. One of the most common forms of synesthesia is when people involuntarily see particular colors in connection with letters, numbers or sounds.

Many artists and composers have described their experiences with synesthesia. Children with synesthesia say sometimes that it is distracting when they are trying to read. Thus, understanding the origins of synesthesia may help people with dyslexia or other learning differences, or people who have lost their sight or hearing and are trying to engage in sensory substitution for rehabilitation.

Researchers led by neurologist Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, recruited 17 people with synesthesia, and asked them to take a form of the IAT (implicit association test). Known for its use probing social attitudes such as racial prejudice, the IAT can also assess “cross-modal correspondences.”

An example of a cross-modal correspondence is that we describe musical notes as being “high” or “low” – words that also signify relative positions in space. Another is that we think of some sounds such as “m” and “l” as soft, and are more likely to associate them with rounded shapes. Similarly, we connect hard sounds such as “k” and “t” with angular shapes.

“There’s been a debate about synesthesia,” Sathian says. “Are the associations synesthetes have just extreme versions of cross-modal correspondences that other people have, or are they qualitatively different?”

Sathian and his colleagues found that people with synesthesia were more sensitive to correspondences between the sounds of pseudowords — words without meaning in English — and rounded or angular shapes. Read more

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Cardiac ‘disease in a dish’ models advance arrhythmia research

New research illustrates how “disease in a dish” stem cell technology can advance cardiology.

Scientists led by Chunhui Xu, PhD derived cardiac muscle cells from a teenaged boy with an inherited heart arrhythmia, and used them to study how his cells respond to drugs. They did this not through a cardiac biopsy, but by converting some of the boy’s skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, and then into cardiac muscle cells.

Xu, director of the Cardiomyocyte Stem Cell Lab in Emory’s Department of Pediatrics, says this approach has been helpful in the study of other inherited arrhythmias and cardiomyopathies (example: 2011 Nature paper on long QT syndrome). In addition, Xu says, human-derived cardiac muscle cells could be used for toxicology testing for new drugs, since the molecules that regulate human cardiac muscle cells functions are distinct from those in animal models.

The findings were published on September 7 in Disease Models & Mechanisms.

The boy who provided the cells has CPVT (catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia), as do some of his relatives. CPVT, which occurs in about 1 in 10,000 people, is a major cause of sudden cardiac death in people younger than 40.

CPVT_arrhythmia smaller

In the patient whose cells are described in the paper, the drug flecainide could suppress arrhythmias that would otherwise appear during exercise. Electrocardiography from Preininger et al, Disease Models & Mechanisms (2016) via Creative Commons.

Arrhythmias in CPVT are almost exclusively brought on by activities that generate high levels of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline: heavy exertion, sports or emotional stress. Thus, affected individuals need to take medication regularly and usually should avoid competitive sports. The boy in the study also had an implanted cardiac defibrillator.

CPVT is generally treatable with beta-blockers, but about 25 percent of patients – including the boy in the study — are inadequately protected from arrhythmias by beta-blockers. Taking the drug flecainide, also used to treat atrial fibrillation, provides him an additional level of control.

Xu and her colleagues could duplicate those effects with his cardiac muscle cells in culture, by observing the ability of the drugs to suppress aberrant “calcium sparks.”

“We were able to recapitulate in a petri dish what we had seen in the patient,” says co-author Peter Fischbach, MD, chief academic officer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Sibley Heart Center and associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “The hope is that in the future, we will be able to do that in reverse order.” Read more

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Strain differences in Zika infection genes

Scientists have revealed molecular differences between how the African and Asian strains of Zika virus infect neural progenitor cells. The results could provide insights into the Zika virus’ recent emergence as a global health emergency, and also point to inhibitors of the p53 pathway as potential leads for drugs that could protect brain cells from cell death.

The findings, from the Emory/Johns Hopkins/Florida State team that showed this spring that neural progenitor cells are particularly vulnerable to Zika infection (related paper), were published this week in Nucleic Acid Research. The manuscript was also posted on BioRxiv before publication.

Zika infection genes

Overlap in gene expression changes when neural progenitor cells are infected by African or Asian strains of Zika virus. Diagram from Nucleic Acids Research via Creative Commons.

Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in the 1940s, and two distinct lineages of Zika diverged sometime in the second half of the 20th century: African and Asian. The strains currently circulating in the Western Hemisphere, which have been linked to microcephaly in infants and Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults, are more closely related to the Asian lineage.

The research team catalogued and compared genes turned on and off by Asian and African strains of Zika virus, as well as dengue virus, in human neural progenitor cells. The authors describe dengue as inducing more robust changes in gene expression than either strain of Zika. Although they show that dengue can infect neural progenitor cells like Zika can, dengue infection does not stunt the cells’ growth or lead to cell death.

“This shows that the differences between Zika and dengue are not at the level of being able to infect neural progenitors, but more about the harm Zika causes when it does infect those cells,” says senior author Peng Jin, PhD, professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine. Read more

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Cell therapy clinical trial in stroke

Emory neurosurgeon Robert Gross was recently quoted in a Tennessee newspaper article about a clinical trial of cell therapy for stroke. He used cautionary language to set expectations.

“We’re still in the very early exploratory phases of this type of work,” Gross told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “In these cases, a significant area of the brain has been damaged, and simply putting a deposit of undifferentiated cells into the brain and magically thinking they will rewire the brain as good as new is naive. None of us think that.”

A more preliminary study (just 18 patients) using the same approach at Stanford and University of Pittsburgh was published this summer in Stroke, which says it was the “first reported intracerebral stem cell transplant study for stroke in North America.” The San Diego Union Tribune made an effort to be balanced in how the results were described:

Stroke patients who received genetically modified stem cells significantly recovered their mobility… Outcomes varied, but more than a third experienced significant benefit.

The newspaper articles made us curious about what these cells actually are. They’re mesenchymal stromal cells, engineered with an extra modified Notch gene. That extra gene drives them to make more supportive factors for neurons, but it doesn’t turn them into neurons. Read more

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Leaky gut plus diet together drive liver disease

 

Frank Anania, MD

Lots of people in the United States consume a diet that is high in sugar and fat, and many develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a relatively innocuous condition. NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis) is the more unruly version, linked to elevated risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and can progress to cirrhosis. NASH is expected to become the leading indication for liver transplant. But only a fraction of people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease go on to develop NASH.

Thus, many researchers are trying to solve this equation:

High-sugar, high-fat diet plus X results in NASH.

Emory hepatologist Frank Anania and colleagues make the case in a recent Gastroenterology paper that a “leaky gut”, allowing intestinal microbes to promote liver inflammation, could be a missing X factor.

Anania’s lab started off with mice fed a diet high in saturated fat, fructose and cholesterol (in the figure, PrintHFCD). This combination gives the mice moderate fatty liver disease and metabolic syndrome (see this 2015 paper, and we can expect to hear more about this model soon from Saul Karpen). Leaky gut, brought about by removing a junction protein from intestinal cells, sped up and intensified the development of NASH.

The authors say that this model could be useful for the study of NASH, which has been difficult to reproduce in mice.

The researchers could attenuate liver disease in the mice by treatment with antibiotics or sevelamer, a phosphate binding polymer that soaks up inflammatory toxins from bacteria. Sevelamer is now used to treat excess phosphate in patients with chronic kidney disease, and is being studied clinically in connection with insulin resistance.
Read more

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Plasma cells, antibody factories

Immune cells that serve as antibody production factories, also known as plasma cells, are the focus of a recent Nature Immunology paper from Jeremy Boss and colleagues.

Plasma cells also appear in Ali Ellebedy and Rafi Ahmed’s recent paper on the precursors of memory B cells and Eun Lee’s work on long-lived antibody-producing cells. In addition, plasma cells appear prominently in Larry Boise’s studies of myeloma, because myeloma cancer cells are thought to come from plasma cells and have a similar biology.B cell methylation

The Boss lab’s paper focuses on patterns of methylation, modifications of DNA that usually help turn genes off. In comparison with resting B cells, plasma cells need to turn on lots of genes, so their DNA methylation level goes down when differentiation occurs (see graph). PC = plasma cells, PB = plasmablasts. DNAme indicates the extent of DNA methylation. Read more

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Are you experienced?

Are you experienced? Your immune system undoubtedly is. Because of vaccinations and infections, we accumulate memory T cells, which embody the ability of the immune system to respond quickly and effectively to bacteria or viruses it has seen before.

Not so with mice kept in clean laboratory facilities. Emory scientists think this difference could help explain why many treatments for sepsis that work well in mice haven’t in human clinical trials.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 1.42.21 PM

Mandy Ford has teamed up with Craig Coopersmith to investigate sepsis, a relatively new field for her, and the collaboration has blossomed in several directions

“This is an issue we’ve been aware of in transplant immunology for a long time,” says Mandy Ford, scientific director of Emory Transplant Center. “Real life humans have more memory T cells than the mice that we usually study.”

Sepsis is like a storm moving through the immune system. Scientists studying sepsis think that it has a hyper-inflammatory phase, when the storm is coming through, and a period of impaired immune function afterwards. The ensuring paralysis leaves patients unable to fight off secondary infections.

In late-stage sepsis patients, dormant viruses that the immune system usually keeps under control, such as Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus, emerge from hiding. The situation looks a lot like that in kidney transplant patients, who are taking drugs to prevent immune rejection of their new organ, Ford says.

Ford’s team recently found that sepsis preferentially depletes some types of memory T cells in mice. Because T cells usually keep latent viruses in check, this may explain why the viruses are reactivated after sepsis, she says. Read more

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Aging, CVD risk factors and progenitor cells

Cardiologists Ibhar Al Mheid, Arshed Quyyumi and colleagues from Emory’s Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute recently published a paper that weaves together insights from past research on circulating progenitor cells. They tease apart the influences of age and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors on these cells, whose regenerative capacity has made them the target of much investigation. From this research, one can infer that the circulatory system has a limited regenerative capacity, and stress upon the system earlier in life depletes it later.

Circulating progenitor cells are rare cells in the blood that can become white or red blood cells, as well as endothelial cells, which line blood vessels and repair them when damaged by cardiovascular disease. Quyyumi and his colleagues have sought to deliver progenitor cells, derived from the patient’s own bone marrow, to the heart – or less invasively, spur them out of the bone marrow with drugs. Read more

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How antiviral antibodies become part of immune memory

Weapons production first, research later. During wartime, governments follow these priorities, and so does the immune system.

When fighting a bacterial or viral infection, an otherwise healthy person will make lots of antibodies, blood-borne proteins that grab onto the invaders. The immune system also channels some of its resources into research: storing some antibody-making cells as insurance for a future encounter, and tinkering with the antibodies to improve them.

In humans, scientists know a lot about the cells involved in immediate antibody production, called plasmablasts, but less about the separate group of cells responsible for the “storage/research for the future” functions, called memory B cells. Understanding how to elicit memory B cells, along with plasmablasts, is critical for designing effective vaccines.

EbolaBcells

Activated B cells (blue) and plasmablasts (red) in patients hospitalized for Ebola virus infection, with a healthy donor for comparison. From Ellebedy et al Nature Immunology (2016).

Researchers at Emory Vaccine Center and Stanford’s Department of Pathology have been examining the precursors of memory B cells, called activated B cells, after influenza vaccination and infection and during Ebola virus infection. The Ebola-infected patients were the four who were treated at Emory University Hospital’s Serious Communicable Disease Unit in 2014.

The findings were published Monday, August 15 in Nature Immunology.

“Ebola virus infection represents a situation when the patients’ bodies were encountering something they’ve never seen before,” says lead author Ali Ellebedy, PhD, senior research scientist at Emory Vaccine Center. “In contrast, during both influenza vaccination and infection, the immune system generally is relying on recall.”

Unlike plasmablasts, activated B cells do not secrete antibodies spontaneously, but can do so if stimulated. Each B cell carries different rearrangements in its DNA, corresponding to the specificity and type of antibody it produces. The rearrangements allowed Ellebedy and his colleagues to track the activated B cells, like DNA bar codes, as an immune response progresses. Read more

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Stay out, stray stem cells

Despite the hubbub about pluripotent stem cells’ potential applications, when it comes time to introduce products into patients, the stem cells are actually impurities that need to be removed.

That’s because this type of stem cell is capable of becoming teratomas – tumors — when transplanted. For quality control, researchers want to figure out how to ensure that the stem-cell-derived cardiac muscle or neural progenitor or pancreas cells (or whatever) are as pure as possible. Put simply, they want the end product, not the source cells.

Stem cell expert Chunhui Xu (also featured in our post last week about microgravity) has teamed up with biomedical engineers Ximei Qian and Shuming Nie to develop an extremely sensitive technique for detecting stray stem cells.PowerPoint Presentation

The technique, described in Biomaterials, uses gold nanoparticles and Raman scattering, a technology previously developed by Qian and Nie for cancer cell detection (2007 Nature Biotech paper, 2011 Cancer Research paper on circulating tumor cells). In this case, the gold nanoparticles are conjugated with antibodies against SSEA-5 or TRA-1-60, proteins that are found on the surfaces of stem cells. Read more

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