To explain cancer biology, use metaphors

An expert on doctor-patient communication says: let the explanatory metaphors Read more

Enhanced verbal abilities in the congenitally blind

Congenitally blind study participants displayed superior verbal, but not spatial abilities. Possibly reflects their greater reliance on verbal information, and the recruitment of the visual cortex for verbal Read more

Three remarkable Emory case reports from #ACC17

Three remarkable case reports being presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting, including cardiac electrical storm, reverse Takotsubo and congenital heart Read more

Department of Cell Biology

‘Matchmaker’ role for protein behind SMA

Motor neurons connect the spinal cord to the muscles. They can be a meter long in adult humans. SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) affects approximately 1 in 10,000 babies. It impairs the ability to move and breathe, and in its most severe form, kills before the age of two.

A puzzling question has lurked behind SMA (spinal muscular atrophy), the leading genetic cause of death in infants.

The disorder leads to reduced levels of the SMN (survival of motor neurons) protein, which is thought to be involved in processing RNA, something that occurs in every cell in the body. So why does interfering with a process that happens everywhere affect motor neurons first?

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have been building a case for an answer. It’s because motor neurons have long axons. And RNA must be transported to the end of the axons for motor neurons to survive and keep us moving, eating and breathing.

Now the Emory researchers have a detailed picture for what they think the SMN protein is doing, and how its deficiency causes problems in SMA patients’ cells. The findings are published in Cell Reports.

Wilfried Rossoll, PhD in the lab.

“Our model explains the specificity — why motor neurons are so vulnerable to reductions in SMN,” says Wilfried Rossoll, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine [and soon moving to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville]. “What’s new is that we have a mechanism.”

Rossoll and his colleagues showed that the SMN protein is acting like a “matchmaker” for messenger RNA that needs partners to transport it into the cell axon.

RNA carries messages from DNA, huddled in the nucleus, to the rest of the cell so that proteins can be produced locally. But RNA can’t do that on its own, Rossoll says. In the paper, the scientists call SMN a “molecular chaperone.” That means SMN helps RNA hook up with processing and transport proteins, but doesn’t stay attached once the connections are made.

“It loads the truck, but it’s not on the truck,” Rossoll says. [Read the rest of Emory’s press release here.]

He also tells me that even though the two diseases affect very different age groups, SMA and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) have two things in common: they both affect motor neurons and they both involve proteins that transport RNA. He says an emerging idea in the field is that SMA represents a problem of “hypo-assembly” while ALS is a problem of “hyper-assembly.”

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The very first cells

Please welcome cell biologist Dorothy Lerit to Emory.

Dorothy Lerit, PhD

She was the lead author on a recent Cell Reports paper on primordial germ cell formation in Drosophila, along with colleagues from NHLBI, where she was a postdoc, as well as Princeton, UVA and Columbia. Primordial germ cells are the cells that are destined to become sperm or eggs.

Germ cells are the very first cells that form out of the embryo, Lerit says. Lab Land is reminded of Lewis Wolpert’s claim that gastrulation – the separation of an apparently uniform group of embryonic cells into three germ layers — is “truly the most important time in your life.” Germ cell specification, certainly important from the viewpoint of future generations, occurs even before gastrulation.

In the Cell Reports paper, Lerit was examining the function of a particular gene called Germ cell-less; remember that Drosophila genes are often named after the effects of a mutation in the gene.

Drosophila development is superficially quite different from that of mammals. In particular, for a while the early embryo becomes a bag full of cell nuclei — without membranes separating them — known as a syncytium. This is the time when Germ cell-less function is important.

Amazing picture of germ cell formation from HHMI/Nature Cell Biology/Ruth Lehmann’s lab https://www.hhmi.org/node/16760/devel

Lerit’s background is in studying the centrosome, the place in the cell where microtubules meet, and critical for orderly cell division and for ensuring that “germline fate determinants” are sequestered to the right primordial cells.

Despite the differences between insect and mammalian embryo development, the function of Germ cell-less seems to have been conserved in evolution since problems with the human version of the gene are linked to sterility in men.

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A sweet brain preserver: trehalose

It’s sweet, it’s safe, and it looks like it could save neurons. What is it? Trehalose.

Trehalose molecule

Trehalose is a natural sugar.

This natural sugar is used in the food industry as a preservative and flavor enhancer (it’s in Taco Bell’s meat filling). And curiously, medical researchers keep running into trehalose when they’re looking for ways to fight neurodegenerative diseases.

A recent example from Emory’s Department of Pharmacology: Chris Holler, Thomas Kukar and colleagues were looking for drugs that might boost human cells’ production of progranulin (PGRN), a growth factor that keeps neurons healthy. Mutations in the progranulin gene are a common cause of frontotemporal dementia.

The Emory scientists discovered two leads: a class of compounds called mTOR inhibitors — the transplant drug rapamycin is one — and trehalose. The team decided to concentrate on trehalose because it increased PGRN levels in neuronal and non-neuronal cell types, unlike the mTOR inhibitors. Their results were published at the end of June in Molecular Neurodegeneration.

The team confirmed their findings by examining the effects of trehalose on cells derived from patients with progranulin mutations. This paper is the first to include results from Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, which was established in 2012 to facilitate this type of “disease in a dish” approach. Cell biologists Charles Easley, Wilfried Rossoll and Gary Bassell from the LTCB, and neurologists Chad Hales and William Hu from the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease are co-authors.

Read more

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When genes forget to forget

In ancient Greek mythology, the souls of the dead were made to drink from the river Lethe, so that they would forget their past lives. Something analogous happens to genes at the very beginning of life. Right after fertilization, the embryo instructs them to forget what it was like in the egg or sperm where they had come from.

This is part of the “maternal-to-zygote transition”: much of the epigenetic information carried on and around the DNA is wiped clean, so that the embryo can start from a clean slate.

Developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert once said: “It is not birth, marriage or death which is
the most important time in your life, but gastrulation,” referring to when the early embryo separates into layers of cells that eventually make up all the organs. Well, the MZT, which occurs first, comes pretty close in importance.

When this process of epigenetic reprogramming is disrupted, the consequences are often lethal. Emory cell biologists David Katz and Jadiel Wasson discovered that when mouse eggs are missing an enzyme that is critical for the MZT, on the rare instances when the mice survive to adulthood, they display odd repetitive behaviors. Read more

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Cancer metastasis: isolating invasive cells with a color change

The capacity of cancer cells to spread throughout the body and invade new tissues – to become metastatic — makes them deadly. What makes metastatic cells different? Scientists at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have developed a technique for isolating individual cells that display invasive behavior out of a large group in culture by changing their color.

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Growth factor mimics promote recovery after nerve injury

Peripheral nerve injury ranges from chronic irritation like carpal tunnel syndrome to violent trauma. Severe nerve injury can leave patients with lifelong disabilities. Even if nerves regenerate, functional recovery is often poor, because of problems with regeneration of axons, the signal-carrying “stalks” of nerve cells.Figure4.axons

Cell biologist Art English and his colleagues have shown that compounds identified by pathologist Keqiang Ye can promote axon regeneration when mice have injured peripheral nerves. The growth factor-mimicking compounds not only stimulate axons to regenerate twice as quickly (see figure), but also promote the restoration of connections between nerve and muscle. The results were published in September in PNAS.

Ye previously identified compounds that activate the same signals as the neuron growth factor BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). These compounds – 7,8-dihydroxyflavone and deoxygedunin — have shown promise in experimental models of diseases such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease. They also have been used to tweak learning and memory in animal models.

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What cancer researchers can learn from fruit fly genetics

What can scientists studying cancer biology learn from fruit flies?

Quite a lot, it turns out.  At a time when large projects such as the Cancer Genome Atlas seek to define the changes in DNA that drive cancer formation, it is helpful to have the insight gained from other arenas, such as fruit flies, to make sense of the mountains of data.

Drosophila melanogaster has been an important model organism for genetics because the flies are easy to care for, reproduce rapidly, and have an easily manipulated genome. This NCI newsletter article describes how some investigators have used Drosophila to find genes involved in metastasis.

Emory cell biologist Ken Moberg says that he and postdoctoral fellow Melissa Gilbert crafted a Drosophila-based strategy to identify growth-regulating genes that previous researchers may have missed. Their approach allowed them to begin defining the function of a gene that is often mutated in lung cancer. The results are published online in Developmental Cell.

Part of the developing fly larva, stained with an antibody against Myopic. Groups of cells lacking Myopic, which lack green color, tend to divide more rapidly.

Moberg writes:

Many screens have been carried out in flies looking for single gene lesions that drive tissue overgrowth. But a fundamental lesson from years of cancer research is that many, and perhaps most, cancer-causing mutations also drive compensatory apoptosis, and blocking this apoptosis is absolutely required for cancer outgrowth.

We reasoned that this class of ‘conditional’ growth suppressor genes had been missed in prior screens, so we designed an approach to look for them. The basic pathways of apoptosis are fairly well conserved in flies, so it’s fairly straight forward to do this.

Explanatory note: apoptosis is basically a form of cellular suicide, which can arise when signals within the cell clash; one set of proteins says “grow, grow” and another says “brake, brake,” with deadly results.

Gilbert identified the fruit fly gene Myopic as one of these conditional growth regulators. She used a system where mutations in Myopic drive some of the cells in the fly’s developing eye to grow out more – but only when apoptosis is disabled.

Gilbert showed that Myopic is part of a group of genes in flies, making up the Hippo pathway, which regulates how large a developing organ will become. This pathway was largely defined in flies, then tested in humans, Moberg says. The functions of the genes in this pathway have been maintained so faithfully that in some cases, the human versions can substitute for the fly versions.

Myopic’s ortholog (ie different species, similar sequence and function) is the gene His-domain protein tyrosine phosphatase, or HD-PTP for short. This gene is located on part of the human genome that is deleted in more than 90 percent of both small cell and non-small cell lung cancers, and is also deleted in renal cancer cells.

How HD-PTP, when it is intact, controls the growth of cells in the human lung or kidney is not known. Gilbert and Moberg’s findings suggest that HD-PTP may function through a mechanism that is similar to Myopic’s functions in the fly.

Besides clarifying what Myopic does in the fly, their paper essentially creates a map for scientists studying HD-PTP’s involvement in lung cancer, for example, to probe and validate.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer 1 Comment