MSCs: what’s in a name?

Whether they are "stem" or "stromal", from adult tissues or from umbilical cord blood, MSCs are being used for a lot of clinical trials. Read more

Mopping up immune troublemakers after transplant

Memory CD8+ T cells play an important role in kidney transplant rejection, and they resist drugs that would otherwise improve Read more

Tracking a frameshift through the ribosome

Ribosomal frameshifting, visualized through X-ray Read more

Department of Human Genetics

Looking ahead to new opioid treatments

Stephanie Foster sees herself one day specializing in addiction psychiatry. When she started her MD/PhD studies at Emory, she sought out neuroscientist David Weinshenker to discuss research projects. She is now examining potential treatments for opiate addiction based on galanin, a neuropeptide found in the brain.

Weinshenker and his colleagues had already been studying galanin in relation to stimulants such as cocaine. Preliminary studies in animals indicate that activating galanin signals might reduce the rewarding effects of opiates, withdrawal symptoms, and relapse-like behavior.

“This was a whole new direction that looked promising,” Foster says. “But first, we have to work out the brain circuitry.”

Foster comes from a Native American background, and has a long-range plan to work in the Indian Health Service. The death rate of Native Americans from opiate overdoses is the highest of any American population group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She would like to establish a research lab in a region of the country where she could continue her addiction research and also work closely with Native communities.

Screenshot from NIH reporter (grant database). F31 grants for year 2018.

Last year, Foster applied for and received an individual grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to support her work. Emory currently leads U.S. universities in the number of graduate students holding their own active grants from the National Institutes of Health. This reflects a multi-year effort to build instruction in critical parts of scientific life: planning and communicating about one’s work.

With opiate addiction, convincing others that the topic is worthwhile is not so difficult. Foster notes that few treatments are available for the early stages of opiate addiction. Long-lasting opiate substitutes/replacements such as methadone and buprenorphine are used once dependence has set in, and another medication, lofexidine, was recently approved for acute withdrawal symptoms.

“There isn’t really anything for people before they reach that stage,” Foster says. “Our idea is to look for an intervention that could be given earlier.” Read more

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Mysterious DNA modification important in fly brain

Emory scientists have identified a function for a mysterious DNA modification in fruit flies’ brain development, which may provide hints to its role in humans.

The results were published Thursday, August 2 in Molecular Cell.

Epigenetics may mean “above the genes,” but a lot of the focus in the field is on DNA methylation, a chemical modification of DNA itself. Methylation doesn’t change the actual DNA letters (A, C, G and T), but it does change how DNA is handled by the cell. Generally, it shuts genes off and is essential for cell differentiation.

The most commonly studied form of DNA methylation appears on the DNA letter C (cytosine). Drosophila, despite being a useful genetic model of development, have very little of this form of DNA methylation. What they do have is methylation on A — technically, N6-methyladenine, although little was known about what this modification did for flies.

Editor’s note: See this 2017 Nature feature from Cassandra Willyard on an “epigenetics gold rush”, which mentions the discovery of N6-methyladenine’s presence in the genomes of several organisms.

Emory geneticists Bing Yao, PhD, Peng Jin, PhD and colleagues now have shown that an enzyme that removes methylation from A is critical for neuronal development in Drosophila.

This finding is significant because the enzyme is in the same family (TET for ten-eleven translocation) of demethylases that trigger removal of DNA methylation from C in mammals. The function of TET enzymes, revealing that cells actively removed DNA methylation rather than just letting it slough off, was discovered only in 2009. Read more

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Where it hurts matters in the gut

What part of the intestine is problematic matters more than inflammatory bowel disease subtype (Crohn’s disease vs ulcerative colitis), when it comes to genetic activity signatures in pediatric IBD.

Suresh Venkateswaran and Subra Kugathasan in the lab

That’s the takeaway message for a recent paper in Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology (the PDF is open access) from gastroenterologist Subra Kugathasan and colleagues. His team has been studying risk factors in pediatric IBD that could predict whether a child will experience complications requiring surgery.

Kugathasan is professor of pediatrics and human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine and scientific director of the pediatric IBD program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. He is also director of the Children’s Center for Transplantation and Immune-mediated Disorders.

“This study has demonstrated that tissue samples from the ileum and rectum of CD patients show higher molecular level differences, whereas in tissue samples from two different patients with the same type of disease, the molecular differences are low,” Kugathasan says. “This was an important question to answer, since IBD can be localized to one area, and the treatment responses can vary and can be tailored to a localized area if this knowledge is well known.”

Research associate Suresh Venkateswaran, PhD, is the first author on the CMGH paper.

“We see that the differences are not connected to genomic variations,” he says. “Instead, they may be caused by non-genetic factors which are specific to each location and disease sub-type of the patient.”

These findings have implications for other study designs involving molecular profiling of IBD patients. The authors believe the findings will be important for future design of locally acting drugs.

Read more

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The blue spot: where seeds of destruction begin

Neuroscientist and geneticist David Weinshenker makes a case that the locus coeruleus (LC), a small region of the brainstem and part of the pons, is among the earliest regions to show signs of degeneration in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. You can check it out in Trends in Neurosciences.

The LC is the main source of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in the brain, and gets its name (Latin for “blue spot”) from the pigment neuromelanin, which is formed as a byproduct of the synthesis of norepinephrine and its related neurotransmitter dopamine. The LC has connections all over the brain, and is thought to be involved in arousal and attention, stress responses, learning and memory, and the sleep-wake cycle.

Cells in the locus coeruleus are lost in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. From Kelly et al Acta Neuropath. Comm. (2017) via Creative Commons

The protein tau is one of the toxic proteins tied to Alzheimer’s, and it forms intracellular tangles. Pathologists have observed that precursors to tau tangles can be found in the LC in apparently healthy people before anywhere else in the brain, sometimes during the first few decades of life, Weinshenker writes. A similar bad actor in Parkinson’s, alpha-synuclein, can also be detected in the LC before other parts of the brain that are well known for damage in Parkinson’s, such as the dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra.

“The LC is the earliest site to show tau pathology in AD and one of the earliest (but not the earliest) site to show alpha-synuclein pathology in PD,” Weinshenker tells Lab Land. “The degeneration of the cells in both these diseases is more gradual. It probably starts in the terminals/fibers and eventually the cell bodies die.” Read more

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Huntington disease roundup

A lot is happening in the Huntington’s disease (HD) field right now. Emory research reports on a pig HD model and on CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing are just part of the wave.

Let’s step back and review the technologies now available to treat this neurodegenerative disease, caused by a gene producing a toxic protein. Antisense approaches, under development for decades and now in clinical trials, shut off the problematic gene. However, this type of treatment would need to be regularly delivered to nervous system tissues. Gene editing — not in the clinic yet — could actually remove the gene from somatic cells in affected individuals.

Emory researchers developed the pig HD model in collaboration with colleagues in Guangzhou, and anticipate it will be a practical way to test treatments such as gene editing. In comparison with mice, delivery to affected nervous system tissues can be better tested in pigs, because their size is closer to that of humans. The pig model of HD, published yesterday in Cell, also more closely matches the symptoms of the human disease. This research was covered by Chinese media organizations.

Also notable:

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Navigating monstrous anticancer obstacles

A new PNAS paper from geneticist Tamara Caspary’s lab identifies a possible drug target in medulloblastoma, the most common pediatric brain tumor. Come aboard to understand the obstacles this research seeks to navigate. Emory library link here.

Standard treatment for children with medulloblastoma consists of surgery in combination with radiation and chemotherapy. Alternatives are needed, because survivors can experience side effects such as neurocognitive impairment. One possibility has emerged in the last decade: inhibitors of the Hedgehog pathway, whose aberrant activation drives growth in medulloblastoma.

Medulloblastoma patients are caught “between Scylla and Charybdis”: facing a deadly disease, the side effects of radiation and/or existing Hedgehog inhibitors. From Wikimedia.

As this 2017 Oncotarget paper from St. Jude’s describes, Hedgehog inhibitors are no fun either. In adults, these agents cause muscle spasms, hair loss, distorted sense of taste, fatigue, and weight loss. In a pediatric clinical trial, the St. Jude group observed growth plate fusions, resulting in short stature. The drug described in the paper was approved in 2012 for basal cell carcinoma, a form of cancer whose growth is also driven by the Hedgehog pathway. Basal cell carcinoma is actually the most common form of human cancer, although it is often caught at an early stage that doesn’t require harsh treatment.

Caspary’s lab studies the Hedgehog pathway in early embryonic development. In the PNAS paper, former graduate student Sarah Bay and postdoc Alyssa Long show that targeting a downstream part of the Hedgehog pathway may be a way to avoid problems presented by both radiation/chemo and existing Hedgehog inhibitors. Read more

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Epilepsy pick up sticks

Imagine the game of pick up sticks. It’s hard to extract one stick from the pile without moving others. The same problem exists, in a much more complex way, in the brain. Pulling on one gene or neurotransmitter often nudges a lot of others.

Andrew Escayg, PhD

That’s why a recent paper from Andrew Escayg’s lab is so interesting. He studies genes involved in epilepsy. Several years ago, he showed that mice with mutations in the SCN8A gene have absence epilepsy, while also showing resistance to induced seizures. SCN8A is one of those sticks that touches many others. The gene encodes a voltage-gated sodium channel, involved in setting the thresholds for and triggering neurons’ action potentials. Mutating the gene in mice modifies sleep and even enhances spatial memory.

Escayg’s new paper, with first author Jennifer Wong, looks at the effect of “knocking down” SCN8A in the hippocampus in a mouse model of mesial temporal lobe epilepsy. This model doesn’t involve sodium channel genes; it’s generated by injection of a toxin (kainic acid) into the brain. The finding suggests that inhibiting SCN8A may be applicable to other forms of epilepsy. Escayg notes that mesial temporal lobe epilepsy is one of the most common forms of treatment-resistant epilepsy in adults.

Knocking down SCN8A in the hippocampus 24 hours after injection could prevent the development of seizures in 90 percent of the treated mice. “It is likely that selective reduction in Scn8a expression would have directly decreased neuronal excitability,” the authors write. It did not lead to increased anxiety levels or impaired learning/memory.

Currently, no available drugs target Scn8a specifically. However, antisense approaches for neurodegenerative diseases have been gaining ground – perhaps epilepsy could fit in.

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Five hot projects at Emory in 2017

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing alleviates Huntington’s in mouse model

— Shi-Hua and Xiao-Jiang Li. This project is progressing, with funding from NCATS and a pig-oriented collaboration with partners in China.

Once activated by cancer immunotherapy drugs, T cells still need fuel (CD28)

— Rafi Ahmed’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center. Also see T cell revival predicts lung cancer outcomes. At Thursday’s Winship symposium on cancer immunotherapy, Rafi said the name of the game is now combinations, with an especially good one being PD-1 inhibitors plus IL2.

Pilot study shows direct amygdala stimulation can enhance human memory

— Cory Inman, Joe Manns, Jon Willie. Effects being optimized, see SFN abstract.

Immune responses of five returning travelers infected by Zika virus

— Lilin Lai, Mark Mulligan. Covered here, Emory Hope Clinic and Baylor have data from more patients.

Frog slime kills flu virus

— Joshy Jacob’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center. A follow-up peptide with a name referencing Star Wars is coming.

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Enhancing the brain’s clean up crews

Enhancing the brain’s own clean-up crews could be a strategy for handling the toxic proteins driving several neurodegenerative diseases, new research suggests.

Astrocytes, an abundant supportive cell type in the brain, are better than neurons at disposing of mutant huntingtin, the toxic protein that drives Huntington’s disease pathology, Xiao-Jiang Li and colleagues report in this week’s PNAS.

One reason why astrocytes are better at toxic protein defense than neurons is: they have less of an inhibitory protein called HspBP1. The scientists show that using CRISPR/Cas9 to “knock down” HspBP1 can help neurons get rid of mutant huntingtin and reduce early pathological signs.

Read more

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Insight into brain + learning via ‘friend of fragile X’ gene

We can learn a lot about somebody from the friends they hang out with. This applies to people and also to genes and proteins. Emory scientists have been investigating a gene that we will call — spoiler alert — “Friend of fragile X.”

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, studied by research teams around the world with drug discovery and clinical trials in mind. It is caused by a disruption of the gene FMR1.

In an independent form of inherited intellectual disability found in a small number of Iranian families, a gene called ZC3H14 is mutated. Two papers from Ken Moberg, PhD, associate professor of cell biology, Anita Corbett, PhD, professor of biology and colleagues show that FMR1 and ZC3H14 are, in effect, friends.

The findings provide new insight into the function of FMR1 as well as ZC3H14; the evidence comes from experiments performed in fruit flies and mice. The most recent paper is in the journal Cell Reports (open access), published this week.

The scientists found that the proteins encoded by FMR1 and ZC3H14 stick together in cells and they hang out in the same places. The two proteins have related functions: they both regulate messenger RNA in neurons, which explains their importance for learning and memory.

The fragile X protein (FMRP) was known to control protein production in response to signals arriving in neurons, but the Cell Reports paper shows that FMRP is also regulating the length of  “tails” attached to messenger RNAs – something scientists did not realize, even after years of studying FMRP and fragile X, Moberg says.

To be sure, FMRP interacts with many proteins and appears to be a critical gatekeeper. Emory geneticist Peng Jin, who has conducted his share of research on this topic, says that “FMRP must be very social and has a lot of friends.” More here.

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