‘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

ancestral sequence reconstruction

Tracking how steroid hormone receptor proteins evolved

When thinking about the evolution of female and male, consider that the first steroid receptor proteins, which emerged about 550 million years ago, were responsive to estrogen. The ancestor of other steroid hormone receptors, responsive to hormones such as testosterone, progesterone and cortisol, emerged many millions of years later.

Blue = estrogen-responsive receptors, Orange = non-aromatized (progesterone, testosterone, cortisol) hormone-responsive

Biochemist Eric Ortlund and colleagues have a new paper in Structure that reconstructs how interactions of steroid receptor proteins evolved over time. This is a complex area to model, since the receptors change shape when they bind their respective hormones, allowing them to bring in other proteins and activate genes.

First author C. Denise Okafor, a FIRST postdoctoral fellow at Emory, will be starting a position as assistant professor at Penn State next month.

The scientists also show that a mutation in the mineralocorticoid receptor associated with severe hypertension (S810L), which makes the receptor more promiscuous, restores an ancestral interaction within the protein.

“Evolutionary substitutions rewired the networks, subsequently altering hormonal interactions and allowing steroid receptors to achieve ligand specificity over time,” the authors write.

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Shaking up thermostable proteins

Imagine a shaker table, where kids can assemble a structure out of LEGO bricks and then subject it to a simulated earthquake. The objective is to design the most stable structure.

Biochemists face a similar task when they are attempting to design thermostable proteins, with heat analogous to shaking. Thermostable proteins, which do not become unfolded/denatured at high temperatures, are valuable for industrial processes.

Now imagine that these stable structures have to also perform a function. This is the two-part challenge of designing thermostable proteins. They have to maintain their physical structure, and continue to perform their function adequately, all at high temperatures. 

Eric Ortlund and colleagues, working with Eric Gaucher at Georgia Tech*, have a new paper published in Structure, in which they examine different ways to achieve this goal in a component of the protein synthesis machinery, EF-Tu. This protein exists in both mesophilic bacteria, which live at around human body temperature, and thermophilic organisms (think: hot springs).

A previous analysis by Gaucher used the ASR technique (ancestral sequence reconstruction) to resurrect ancient, extinct EF-Tus and characterize them. It was shown that that ancestral EF-Tus were thermostable and functional. EF-Tu’s thermostability declined along with the environmental temperature; ancestral bacteria started off living in hot environments and those environments cooled off over millions of years.

In the new paper, Ortlund and first author Denise Okafor show that stable proteins generated by protein engineering methods do not always retain their functional capabilities. However, the ASR technique has a unique advantage, Ortlund says. By accounting for the evolutionary history of the protein, it preserves the natural motions required for normal protein function. Their results suggest that ASR could be used to engineer thermostability in other proteins besides EF-Tu.

*Gaucher recently moved to Georgia State.

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Tapping evolution to improve biotech products

Scientists can improve protein-based drugs by reaching into the evolutionary past, a paper published this week in Nature Biotechnology proposes.

As a proof of concept for this approach, the research team from Emory, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Georgia Tech showed how “ancestral sequence reconstruction” or ASR can guide engineering of the blood clotting protein known as factor VIII, which is deficient in the inherited disorder hemophilia A.

fviii_2r7e

Structure of Factor VIII

Other common protein-based drugs include monoclonal antibodies, insulin, human growth hormone and white blood cell stimulating factors given to cancer patients. The authors say that ASR-based engineering could be applied to other recombinant proteins produced outside the human body, as well as gene therapy.

It has been possible to produce human factor VIII in recombinant form since the early 1990s. However, current factor VIII products still have problems: they don’t last long in the blood, they frequently stimulate immune responses in the recipient, and they are difficult and costly to manufacture.

Experimental hematologist and gene therapist Chris Doering, PhD and his colleagues already had some success in addressing these challenges by filling in some of the sequence of human factor VIII with the same protein from pigs.

“We hypothesized that human factor VIII has evolved to be short lived in the blood to reduce the risk of thrombosis,” Doering says. “And we reasoned that by going even farther back in evolutionary history, it should be possible to find more stable, potent relatives.”

Doering is associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The first author of the paper is former Molecular and Systems Pharmacology graduate student Philip Zakas, PhD.

Doering’s lab teamed up with Trent Spencer, PhD, director of cell and gene therapy for the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and Eric Gaucher, PhD, associate professor of biological sciences at Georgia Tech, who specializes in ASR. (Gaucher has also worked with Emory biochemist Eric Ortlund – related item on ASR from Gaucher)

ASR involves reaping the recent harvest of genome sequences from animals as varied as mice, cows, goats, whales, dogs, cats, horses, bats and elephants. Using this information, scientists reconstruct a plausible ancestral sequence for a protein in early mammals. They then tweak the human protein, one amino acid building block at a time, toward the ancestral sequence to see what kinds of effects the changes could have. Read more

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