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

atherosclerosis

Flow mediated dilation

On Friday, researchers from Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute demonstrated a test for how much blood vessels adjust to changes in blood flow. This test is known as “flow-mediated dilation” or FMD. A blood pressure measurement cuff is tightened on the arm for five minutes, restricting blood flow.

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ECCRI investigator Salman Sher, MD demonstrates flow-mediated dilation

When the cuff is released, blood flow increases, but how much the arm’s main artery expands depends on the endothelium – the lining of the artery — and its ability to respond to nitric oxide, which is induced by the increased flow. Researchers monitor the artery’s expansion by ultrasound.

ECCRI co-director Arshed Quyyumi and his colleagues at Emory have extensive experience using the FMD test. Impaired endothelial function is an early stage in the process of atherosclerosis.

The FMD test is relatively non-invasive, in that no catheter probe is necessary. However, practitioners need practice and careful study design to ensure accuracy, ECCRI investigator Salman Sher explained. Posture, time of day and whether the patient has eaten can all affect the results.

Lab Land asked Sher (seated in the photo) whether the effect was similar to the common experience of sleeping on an arm and having it turn numb, followed by “pins and needles” when the pressure is relieved. This feeling actually comes from nerve compression. Read more

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Deliver, but not to the liver

The potential of a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference has long enticed biotechnology researchers. It’s used routinely in the laboratory to shut down specific genes in cells. Still, the challenge of delivery has held back RNA-based drugs in treating human disease.

RNA is unstable and cumbersome, and just getting it into the body without having it break down is difficult. One that hurdle is met, there is another: the vast majority of the drug is taken up by the liver. Many current RNA-based approaches turn this apparent bug into a strength, because they seek to treat liver diseases. See these articles in The Scientist and in Technology Review for more.

But what if you need to deliver RNA somewhere besides the liver?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo’s lab at Emory/Georgia Tech, working with Katherine Ferrara’s group at UC Davis, has developed technology to broaden the liver-dominant properties of RNA-based drugs.

Hanjoong Jo, PhD

The results were recently published in ACS Nano. The researchers show they can selectively target an anti-microRNA agent to inflamed blood vessels in mice while avoiding other tissues.

“We have solved a major obstacle of using anti-miRNA as a therapeutic by being able to do a targeted delivery to only inflamed endothelial cells while all other tissues examined, including liver, lung, kidney, blood cells, spleen, etc showed no detectable side-effects,” Jo says. Read more

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Anti-aging tricks from dietary supplement seen in mice

Our recent news item on a Cell Reports paper from ShiQin Xiong and Wayne Alexander describes a connection between two important biological molecules: the exercise-induced transcription coactivator PGC1-alpha and the enzyme telomerase, sometimes described as a “fountain of youth” because telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes.

While the Emory researchers did not directly assess the effects of exercise in their experiments, their findings provide molecular clues to how exercise might slow the effects of aging or chronic disease in some cell types.

Xiong and Alexander found that the dietary supplement alpha lipoic acid (ALA) can stimulate telomerase, with positive effects in a mouse model of atherosclerosis. ALA is a sulfur-containing fatty acid used to treat diabetic neuropathy in Germany, and has previously been shown to combat atherosclerosis in animal models. The Emory authors’ main focus was on vascular smooth muscle cells and note that more study of ALA’s effects on other cell types is needed.

Below are four key references that may help you put the Cell Reports paper in context: Read more

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The other “cho-” cardiovascular disease biomarker

Quick, what biomarker whose name starts with “cho-” is connected with cardiovascular disease? Very understandable if your first thought is “cholesterol.” Today I’d like to shift focus to a molecule with a similar name, but a very different structure: choline.

Choline, a common dietary lipid component and an essential nutrient, came to prominence in cardiology research in 2011 when researchers at the Cleveland Clinic found that choline and its relatives can contribute to cardiovascular disease in a way that depends upon intestinal bacteria. In the body, choline is part of two phospholipids that are abundant in cell membranes, and is also a precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Some bacteria can turn choline (and also carnitine) into trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), high levels of which predict cardiovascular disease in humans. TMAO in turn seems to alter how inflammatory cells take up cholesterol and lipids.

Researchers at Emory arrived at choline metabolites and their connection to atherosclerosis by another route. Hanjoong Jo and his colleagues have been productively probing the mechanisms of atherosclerosis with an animal model. Very briefly: inducing disturbed blood flow in mice, in combination with a high fat diet, can result in atherosclerotic plaque formation within a few weeks. Jo’s team has used this model to examine changes in gene activation, microRNAs, DNA methylation, and now, metabolic markers.

Talking about this study at Emory’s Clinical Cardiovascular seminar on Friday, metabolomics specialist Dean Jones said he was surprised by the results, which were recently published by the American Journal of Physiology (to be precise, their ‘omics journal). The lead author is instructor Young-Mi Go. Read more

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Plaque erosion: heart attacks triggered by a whimper, not a bang

Cardiologist Bob Taylor and colleagues have a new paper in PLOS One this week, looking at the biomechanical forces behind plaque erosion.

Plaque erosion is a mechanism for blood clots formation in coronary arteries that is not as well-understood as its more explosive counterpart, plaque rupture. Plaque erosion disproportionally affects women more than men and is thought to account for most heart attacks in younger women (women younger than 50).

“We believe that this work has implications for our better understanding of the underlying biology of coronary artery disease in women,” Taylor says. The first author of the paper is biomedical engineering graduate student Ian Campbell, who now has his PhD. The team collaborated with cardiovascular pathologist Renu Virmani in Maryland.

Cardiologists have well-developed ideas for how plaque rupture works*; see the concept of “vulnerable plaque.” Cholesterol and inflammatory cells build up in the coronary arteries over several years. At one point in a particular artery, the plaque has a core of dying inflammatory cells, covered by a fibrous cap. If the cap is thin (the patterns of blood flows near the cap influence this), there is a risk that the cap will break and the contents of the core will spill out, triggering a blood clot nearby.

Plaque erosion is more mysterious and can occur more gradually, the researchers have found. Read more

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Evaluating a different way to measure LDL

What is the most important measurement of cholesterol or lipids in the blood, when it comes to cardiovascular disease risk? LDL-C [low density lipoprotein cholesterol], is often called “bad cholesterol” because it is linked to atherosclerosis, but the landscape is always shifting. Even as cardiologists across the country get used to the new AHA/ACC guidelines, which call for changes in how physicians and patients view LDL-C, new research is focusing attention on other related markers. For example, a recent pair of studies in the New England Journal of Medicine identify gene mutations that lower both triglycerides and heart disease risk, suggesting that drugs that target that gene pathway could be beneficial. A new paper in Atherosclerosis, coauthored by Emory’s Terry Jacobson, looks at LDL-P, a different way of looking at LDL that has been proposed to be a better measure of cardiovascular disease risk. Jacobson is director of the Office of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Grady Health Systems. Read more

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Epigenetic changes in atherosclerosis

If someone living in America and eating a typical diet and leading a sedentary lifestyle lets a few years go by, we can expect plaques of cholesterol and inflammatory cells to build up in his or her arteries. We’re not talking “Super-size Me” here, we’re just talking average American. But then let’s say that same person decides: “OK, I’m going to shape up. I’m going to eat healthier and exercise more.”

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Let’s leave aside whether low-carb or low-fat is best, and let’s say that person succeeds in sticking to his or her declared goals. How “locked in” are the changes in the blood vessels when someone has healthy or unhealthy blood flow patterns?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo and his colleagues published a paper in Journal of Clinical Investigation that touches on this issue. They have an animal model where disturbed blood flow triggers the accumulation of atherosclerosis. They show that the gene expression changes in endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, have an epigenetic component. Specifically, the durable DNA modification known as methylation is involved, and blocking DNA methylation with a drug used for treating some forms of cancer can prevent atherosclerosis in their model. This suggests that blood vessels retain an epigenetic imprint reflecting the blood flow patterns they see.

Although treating atherosclerosis with the drug decitabine is not a viable option clinically, Jo’s team was able to find several genes that are silenced by disturbed blood flow and that need DNA methylation to stay shut off. A handful of those genes have a common mechanism of regulation and may be good therapeutic targets for drug discovery.

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Possible diabetes drug/stent interaction

Diabetes and heart disease often intersect. Emory cardiologist Aloke Finn and his colleagues recently had two papers in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and in Atherosclerosis describing a possible interaction between the widely used diabetes drug metformin and drug-eluting stents, which are used to to treat coronary artery disease. Anwer Habib, MD is the first author of both papers.

The stent props the once-blocked artery open while the drugs in the stents are supposed to prevent the artery from becoming blocked again. The drugs — usually mTOR inhibitors such as http://www.magliettedacalcioit.com everolimus or the newer zotarolimus — slow down cell growth, but this cuts both ways. The drugs slow down the recovery of the lining of the blood vessel and this may contribute to blood clot formation after stent placement.

In cultured human cells and in rabbits with implanted stents, Finn and colleagues showed that metformin augmented the effect of mTOR inhibitors on regrowth of the blood vessel lining. (However — the authors acknowledge that their animal model was not diabetic or atherosclerotic.)

The findings could mean that people taking metformin would need to take medications to prevent blood clotting medications for a longer time after stent placement. The authors say that clinical studies following patients who receive drug-eluting stents should look at metformin’s effects on blood clotting events. A study examining drug eluting stents in diabetic patients is in the works at Emory.

 

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Fat distribution in black and white women may help predict heart disease

A woman’s body shape – often described as pear, apple or hourglass – is usually determined by the amount of fat in various regions of the body including the bust, waist, arms and hips. New research from Emory University School of Medicine suggests that these patterns of fat distribution may help predict arterial stiffness – a precursor to cardiovascular disease.

Stiff arteries make the heart work harder to pump blood and are associated with atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaques in vessels that can block blood flow and cause a heart attack.

Noting that fat distribution generally differs between black and white women’s bodies, researchers enlisted 68 black women and 125 white women, all middle-aged, to see whether these patterns could help assess cardiovascular risk.

The study, conducted by Danny Eapen, MD, a cardiology fellow at Emory, used data from Emory’s Center for Health Discovery and Well Being. He presented his findings recently at the American Heart Association’s Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 2011 meeting.

Using skin calipers, the researchers measured subcutaneous fat in seven sites: the upper chest; midaxillary, or the side of the torso just under the armpit; triceps, or the back of the arm; subscapular, or on the back just below the shoulder blade; abdominal; suprailiac, or just above the front of the hip bone; and the thigh.

“Black women have higher rates of cardiovascular disease than white women and are more likely to die from it,” says Eapen. “Black and white women also have different patterns of fat distribution, so we were interested in measuring these pockets of fat at various regions of the body to evaluate whether it might be helpful in predicting cardiovascular risk between the two groups.  Our hope was to evaluate whether a quick, easy-to-use clinical tool could aid in further risk stratifying our female patients.”

The study also assessed the arterial stiffness of the women, adjusting for heart rate.

As a group, the black women had greater arterial stiffness than the white women. They also had more subcutaneous fat in the armpit, triceps, shoulder blade and hip bone areas.

In addition, they also found specific race dependent pockets of fat that could be related to arterial stiffness – fat measurements in the triceps area could predict increased arterial stiffness in black women, while fat in the suprailiac areas was a predictor in white women.

Content contributed in part by Sarah Goodwin, Emory’s Center for Health Discovery and Well Being.

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Dog days of summer bring ozone challenges

Surviving the heat isn’t the only concern for people in Atlanta during the dog days of summer, the hottest time of the year in the northern hemisphere from early July to mid-August. During this time, ozone levels peak in most industrialized cities, and heavily populated areas tend to be more at risk for pollution, in part, because of increased emissions from cars, trucks and factories.

Cars on the road

Cars on the road

Cherry Wongtrakool, MD, specialist in pulmonary medicine, says pollution is generally broken down into ozone and particulate matter, but can also include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Particulate matter is complex and includes organic chemicals including acid, metals, dust, smoke and soil. It is often classified by size and particles less than 10 micrometers are included in the air quality index, a common measure of the air pollution level.

In addition to increasing symptoms of asthma and causing respiratory symptoms like cough and shortness of breath, Wongtrakool says pollution has been associated with cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.

She notes that studies to date suggest long-term exposure may accelerate atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Larger population studies have also suggested there are associations between air pollution and increased risk for cancer, and air pollution and increased risk of death secondary to cardiopulmonary causes.

Wongtrakool, who is sssistant professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, Emory School of  Medicine, says if you live in a big city like Atlanta, you can reduce your exposure to air pollution by limiting your time in the car, remaining indoors during the hottest part of the day – typically afternoon and early evening – and reducing time spent doing outdoor activity, particularly activity requiring heavy exertion. People with underlying lung disease should avoid going out when the air quality index is poor, she advises.

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