‘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

cardiology

CV cell therapy: bridge between nurse and building block

In the field of cell therapy for cardiovascular diseases, researchers see two main ways that the cells can provide benefits:

*As building blocks – actually replacing dead cells in damaged tissues

*As nurses — supplying growth factors and other supportive signals, but not becoming part of damaged tissues

Tension between these two roles arises partly from the source of the cells.

Many clinical trials have used bone marrow-derived cells, and the benefits here appear to come mostly from the “paracrine” nurse function. A more ambitious approach is to use progenitor-type cells, which may have to come from iPS cells or cardiac stem cells isolated via biopsy-like procedures. These cells may have a better chance of actually becoming part of the damaged tissue’s muscles or blood vessels, but they are more difficult to obtain and engineer.

A related concern: available evidence suggests introduced cells – no matter if they are primarily serving as nurses or building blocks — don’t survive or even stay in their target tissue for long.

Transplanted cells were labeled with a red dye, while a perfused green dye shows the extent of functional blood vessels. Blue is DAPI, staining nuclear DNA. Yellow arrows indicate where red cells appear to contribute to blood vessels.

Transplanted cells were labeled with a red dye, while a perfused green dye shows the extent of functional blood vessels. Blue is DAPI, staining nuclear DNA. Yellow arrows indicate where red cells appear to contribute to green blood vessels. Courtesy of Sangho Lee.

Stem cell biologist Young-sup Yoon and colleagues recently published a paper in Biomaterials in which the authors use chitosan, a gel-like carbohydrate material obtained by processing crustacean shells, to aid in cell retention and survival. Ravi Bellamkonda’s lab at Georgia Tech contributed to the paper.

More refinement of these approaches are necessary before clinical use,  but it illustrates how engineered mixtures of progenitor cells and supportive materials are becoming increasingly sophisticated and complicated.

The chitosan gel resembles the alginate material used to encapsulate cells by the Taylor lab. Yoon’s team was testing efficacy in a hindlimb ischemia model, in which a mouse’s leg is deprived of blood. This situation is analogous to peripheral artery disease, and the readout of success is the ability of experimental treatments to regrow capillaries in the damaged leg.

The current paper builds a bridge between the nurse and building block approaches, because the researchers mix two complementary types of cells: an angiogenic one derived from bone marrow cells that expands existing blood vessels, and a vasculogenic one derived from embryonic stem cells that drives formation of new blood vessels. Note: embryonic stem cells were of mouse origin, not human. Read more

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There will be microparticles (in stored blood)

More than 9 million people donate blood in the United States every year, according to the American Red Cross. Current guidelines say that blood can be stored for up to six weeks before use.

What happens to red blood cells while they are in storage, which transfusion experts call the “storage lesion”? Multiple studies have shown that older blood may have sub-optimal benefits for patients receiving a transfusion. The reasons include: depletion of the messenger molecule nitric oxide, lysis of red blood cells and alterations in the remaining cells’ stiffness.

To that list, we could add the accumulation of microparticles, tiny membrane-clothed bags that contain proteins and RNA, which have effects on blood vessels and the immune system upon transfusion. Note: microparticles are similar to exosomes but larger – the dividing line for size is about 100 nanometers. Both are much smaller than red blood cells.

EUH blood bank director John Roback recently gave a talk on the blood storage issue, and afterwards, cardiologist Charles Searles and research fellow Adam Mitchell were discussing their work on microparticles that come from red blood cells (RBCs). They have been examining the effects RBC-derived microparticles have on endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, and on immune cells’ stickiness.Red blood cell microparticles280

Mitchell mentioned that he had some striking electron microscope images of microparticles and some of the particles looked like worms. With the aim of maintaining Lab Land’s “Cool Image” feature, I resolved to obtain a few of his photos, and Mitchell generously provided several.

“Those worms definitely had me mesmerized for a while,” he says.

In his talk, Roback described some of the metabolomics research he has been pursuing with Dean Jones. Instead of focusing only on how long blood should be stored, Roback’s team is examining how much differences between donors may affect donated blood’s capacity to retain its freshness. 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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How white blood cells limit muscle regeneration

A paper from cardiologist Aloke Finn and colleagues (published Wednesday, Aug. 5 in Nature Communications) describes how the protein CD163, produced by macrophages, puts the brakes on muscle repair after ischemic injury in mice. Here’s why we think this paper is interesting.

*Speculatively, there are connections to the recent wave of “young blood cures old body” parabiosis research. Increased CD163 is a marker of aging in humans. Maybe low levels of CD163 are part of how young blood is restorative.

*Translational potential — it wouldn’t be too hard to make an antibody against human CD163. Something that blocks CD163 could possibly be used to treat muscle breakdown, which occurs in response to injury, inactivity and in diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

*Finn says his team was surprised to find that mice lacking CD163, tested in experiments where blood flow is restricted in one leg, showed increased blood vessel and muscle growth in the other leg. It looks like part of CD163’s role is to limit muscle regeneration to the site of injury. Read more

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Really? I had a heart attack?

A recent Harvard study, published in Circulation, found a surprising level of inconsistency between what medical records say about whether people had a heart attack and what they report themselves in surveys.

About a quarter of Medicare patients who said in a survey that they previously had a heart attack have no record of having any heart-related hospital admission. Conversely, about one-third of patients who, according to Medicare, experienced a heart attack said they hadn’t.

This finding is consistent with an Emory study from cardiologists Neal Dickert and Habib Samady, in which participants in a clinical trial were interviewed just a couple days after the initial procedure. The trial was testing a “post-conditioning” modification of angioplasty+stenting performed during treatment for a heart attack. Just over half (55 percent) of the participants initially remembered being asked to participate when asked. Read more

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Leslee Shaw explains coronary artery calcium scoring

On Thursday, cardiology researcher Leslee Shaw, PhD joined an exclusive club at Emory with her 2015 Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture and Award.* Shaw is the co-director of Emory’s Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute and research director of Emory Women’s Heart Center. Her lecture focused on the utility of coronary artery calcium (CAC) scoring in predicting cardiovascular disease.

Much cardiovascular risk research has focused on finding imaging or biomarker tests that can provide doctors with cost-effective decision-making power. One prominent question: should the patient take cholesterol-reducing statins? These tests should provide information above and beyond the Framingham Risk Score or its ACC/AHA update, which incorporates information about a patient’s age, sex, cholesterol/HDL, blood pressure and diabetes status.

CAC scoring is a good place to start, Shaw said, since it is a standardized, relatively inexpensive test that measures the buildup of calcium in atherosclerotic plaque, and the radiation dose is low compared with other cardiac imaging techniques. Read more

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Lab Land looking back: Top ten themes for 2014

It is a privilege to work at Emory and learn about and report on so much quality biomedical research. I started to make a top 10 for 2014 and had too many favorites. After diverting some of these topics into the 2015 crystal ball, I corralled them into themes.
1. Cardiac cell therapy
PreSERVE AMI clinical trial led by cardiologist Arshed Quyyumi. Emory investigators developing a variety of approaches to cardiac cell therapy.
2. Mobilizing the body’s own regenerative potential
Ahsan Husain’s work on how young hearts grow. Shan Ping Yu’s lab using parathyroid hormone bone drug to mobilize cells for stroke treatment.
3. Epigenetics
Many colors in the epigenetic palette (hydroxymethylation). Valproate – epigenetic solvent (anti-seizure –> anti-cancer). Methylation in atherosclerosis model (Hanjoong Jo). How to write conservatively about epigenetics and epigenomics.
4. Parkinson’s disease therapeutic strategies
Container Store (Gary Miller, better packaging for dopamine could avoid stress to neurons).
Anti-inflammatory (Malu Tansey, anti-TNF decoy can pass blood-brain barrier).
5. Personal genomics/exome sequencing
Rare disease diagnosis featured in the New Yorker. Threepart series on patient with GRIN2A mutation.
6. Neurosurgeons, like Emory’s Robert Gross and Costas Hadjpanayis, do amazing things
7. Fun vs no fun
Fun = writing about Omar from The Wire in the context of drug discovery.
No fun (but deeply moving) = talking with patients fighting glioblastoma.
8. The hypersomnia field is waking up
Our Web expert tells me this was Lab Land’s most widely read post last year.
9. Fine-tuning approaches to cancer
Image guided cancer surgery (Shuming Nie/David Kooby). Cancer immunotherapy chimera (Jacques Galipeau). Fine tuning old school chemo drug cisplatin (Paul Doetsch)
10. Tie between fructose effects on adolescent brain (Constance Harrell/Gretchen Neigh) and flu immunology (embrace the unfamiliar! Ali Ellebedy/Rafi Ahmed)
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In landmark study of cell therapy for heart attack, more cells make a difference

Patients who receive more cells get significant benefits. That’s a key lesson emerging from a clinical trial that was reported this week at the American Heart Association meeting in Chicago.

In this study, doctors treated heart attack patients with their own bone marrow cells, selected for their healing potential and then reinjected into the heart, in an effort to improve the heart’s recovery. In the PreSERVE-AMI phase II trial, physicians from 60 sites (author list) treated 161 patients, making the study one of the largest to assess cell therapy for heart attacks in the United States. The study was sponsored by NeoStem, Inc.

“This was an enormous undertaking, one that broke new ground in terms of assessing cell therapy rigorously,” says the study’s principal investigator, Arshed Quyyumi, MD, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and co-director of the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute. “We made some real progress in determining the cell type and doses that can benefit patients, in a group for whom the risks of progression to heart failure are high.” 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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What are exosomes?

Biomedical engineer Mike Davis reports he has obtained NHLBI funding to look into therapeutic applications of exosomes in cardiology. But wait. What are exosomes? Time for an explainer!

Exosomes are tiny membrane-wrapped bags, which form inside cells and are then spat out. They’re about 100 or 150 nanometers in diameter. That’s smaller than the smallest bacteria, and about as large as a single influenza or HIV virion. They’re not visible under a light microscope, but are detectable with an electron microscope.

Scientific interest in exosomes shot up after it was discovered that they can contain RNA, specifically microRNAs, which inhibit the activity of other genes. This could be another way in which cells talk to each other long-distance, besides secreting proteins or hormones. Exosomes are thus something like viruses, without the infectivity.

Since researchers are finding that microRNAs have potential as therapeutic agents, why not harness the vehicles that cells use to send microRNAs to each other? Similarly, if so much evidence points toward the main effect of cell therapy coming from what the cells make rather than the cells themselves, why not simply harvest what the cells make? Read more

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