Saliva-based SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing

As the Atlanta area recovers from Zeta, we’d like to highlight this Journal of Clinical Microbiology paper about saliva-based SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing. It was a collaboration between the Hope Clinic and investigators at Johns Hopkins, led by epidemiologist Christopher Heaney. Infectious disease specialists Matthew Collins, Nadine Rouphael and several colleagues from Emory are co-authors. They organized the collection of saliva and blood samples from Emory COVID-19 patients at several stages: being tested, hospitalized, and recovered. Read more

Peeling away pancreatic cancers' defenses

A combination immunotherapy approach that gets through pancreatic cancers’ extra Read more

Immune cell activation in severe COVID-19 resembles lupus

In severe cases of COVID-19, Emory researchers have been observing an exuberant activation of B cells, resembling acute flares in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease. The findings point towards tests that could separate some COVID-19 patients who need immune-calming therapies from others who may not. It also may begin to explain why some people infected with SARS-CoV-2 produce abundant antibodies against the virus, yet experience poor outcomes. The results were published online on Oct. Read more

Department of Human Genetics

Fragile X: $8 million NIH grant supports next-generation neuroscience

Supported by a $8 million, five-year grant, an Emory-led team of scientists plans to investigate new therapeutic approaches to fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism.

Fragile X research represents a doorway to a better understanding of autism, and learning and memory. The field has made strides in recent years. Researchers have a good understanding of the functions of the FMR1 gene, which is silenced in fragile X syndrome.

Still, clinical trials based on that understanding have been unsuccessful, highlighting limitations of current mouse models. Researchers say the answer is to use “organoid” cultures that mimic the developing human brain.

The new grant continues support for the Emory Fragile X Center, first funded by the National Institutes of Health in 1997. The Center’s research program includes scientists from Emory as well as Stanford, New York University, Penn and the University of Southern California. The Emory Center will be one of three funded by the National Institutes of Health; the others are at Baylor College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The co-directors for the Emory Fragile X Center are Peng Jin, PhD, chair of human genetics, and Stephen Warren, PhD, William Patterson Timmie professor and chair emeritus of human genetics. In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren led an international team that discovered the FMR1 gene and the mechanism of trinucleotide repeat expansion that silences the gene. This explained fragile X syndrome’s distinctive inheritance pattern, first identified by Emory geneticist Stephanie Sherman, PhD.

“Fragile X research is a consistent strength for Emory, stretching across several departments, based on groundbreaking work from Steve and Stephanie,” Jin says. “Now we have an opportunity to apply the knowledge we and our colleagues have gained to test the next generation of treatments.”

Fragile X researchers from three Emory departments, following COVID-19 spacing guidelines in the laboratory. From left to right: Peng Jin, Gary Bassell, Zhexing Wen and Nisha Raj.

Looking ahead, a key element of the Center’s research will involve studying the human brain in “disease in a dish” models, says Gary Bassell, PhD, chair of cell biology. Nisha Raj, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab, has been studying how FMR1 regulates localized protein synthesis at the brain’s synapses.

“What we’re learning is that there may be different RNA targets in human and mouse cells,” he says. “There’s a clear need to regroup and incorporate human cells into the research.”

Microscope images of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells.
Microscope image of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells. 

Center investigator Zhexing Wen, PhD, has developed techniques for culturing brain organoids (image above), which reproduce features of human brain development in miniature. Wen, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, cell biology and neurology at Emory, has used organoids to model other disorders, such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The organoids are formed from human brain cells, coming from induced pluripotent stem cells, which are in turn derived from patient-donated tissues. Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, directed by Bassell, has developed several lines of induced pluripotent stem cells from fragile X syndrome patients.

“All of the investigators are sharing these valuable resources and collaborating on multiple projects,” Bassell says.

Principal investigators in the Emory Fragile X Center are Jin, Warren, Bassell, and Wen, along with Eric Klann, PhD at New York University, Lu Chen, PhD, and 2013 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof, MD. Chen and Südhof are neuroscientists at Stanford.

Co-investigators include biostatistician Hao Wu, PhD and geneticist Emily Allen, PhD at Emory, neuroscientist Guo-li Ming, MD, PhD, at University of Pennsylvania, and biomedical engineer Dong Song, PhD, at University of Southern California.
 
Allen, Warren and Jin are part of an additional grant to Baylor, Emory and University of Michigan investigators, who are focusing on FXTAS (fragile X-associated tremor-ataxia syndrome) and FXPOI (fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency). These are conditions that affect people with fragile X premutations.

Fragile X syndrome is caused by a genetic duplication on the X chromosome, a “triplet repeat” in which a portion of the gene (CGG) gets repeated again and again. Fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges. About a third of children affected have characteristics of autism, such as problems with eye contact, social anxiety, and delayed speech. 
 
The award for the Emory Fragile X Center is administered by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Galanin: the ‘keep calm and carry on’ hormone?

A few celebrity neuropeptides have acquired a reputation – sometimes exaggerated — and a flavor, corresponding to their functions in the brain.

Oxytocin has the aura of a “cuddle hormone” because of its role in social bonding and reproduction. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain-killers, long thought to be responsible for “runner’s high.” Hypocretin/orexin, missing in narcolepsy, is a stabilizer of wakefulness as well as motivation.

Galanin, studied by Emory neuroscientist David Weinshenker’s lab, is not as flashy as other neuropeptides. While it is accumulating an intriguing track record, galanin appears to play subtly different roles depending on where it is expressed. It is tempting to call galanin the “keep calm and carry on” hormone, but the research on galanin is so complex it’s difficult to pin down.

Graduate student Rachel Tillage and colleagues have a paper this week in Journal of Neuroscience detailing how galanin’s production by one group of neurons in the brainstem confers stress resilience in mice.

This image shows the rough location for the locus coeruleus in the human brain. In mice, production of galanin in the locus coeruleus cushions against stress.

The new paper shows that exercise increases galanin in the locus coeruleus, a region in the brainstem that produces norepinephrine (important for attention, alertness, anxiety and muscle tone). Galanin can provide protection against the anxiety-inducing effects of artificial but very specific locus coeruleus activation by optogenetics.

Read more

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Hedgehog pathway outside cilia

Emory geneticist Tamara Caspary is an expert on the Hedgehog pathway, critical for brain development. In particular, she and her colleagues have been studying a gene that is part of the Hedgehog pathway called Arl13b, which is mutated in Joubert syndrome, affecting development of the cerebellum and brain stem.

The Arl13b protein was known to be enriched in primary cilia, tiny hair-like cellular structures with a signaling/navigation function in neuronal development. However Caspary’s lab, in a collaboration with Frederic Charron’s group in Montreal, has found that Arl13b can also function outside cilia: in axons and growth cones.

The Hedgehog pathway has several roles, some in specifying what embryonic cells will become, and others in terms of guiding growing axons, the scientists conclude in their new paper in Cell Reports.

“Arl13b regulates Shh [Sonic Hedgehog] signaling through two mechanisms: a cilia-associated one to specify cell fate and a cilia localization-independent one to guide axons,” they write.  A related preprint, confirming Arl13b’s extra-ciliary role in mouse development, has been posted on bioRxiv.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mouse version of 3q29 deletion: insights into schizophrenia/ASD pathways

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have created a mouse model of human 3q29 deletion syndrome, which is expected to provide insights into the genetic underpinnings of both schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder.

In 3q29 deletion syndrome, a stretch of DNA containing several genes is missing from one of a child’s chromosomes. The deletion usually occurs spontaneously rather than being inherited. Affected individuals have a higher risk of developing intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorder. 3q29 deletion is one of the strongest genetic risk factors for schizophrenia, and the Emory researchers see investigating it as a way of unraveling schizophrenia’s biological and genetic complexity.

The results were published in Molecular Psychiatry.

“We see these mice as useful tools for understanding the parts of the brain whose development is perturbed by 3q29 deletion, and how it affects males and females differently,” says Jennifer Mulle, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics. “They are also a starting point for dissecting individual genes within the 3q29 deletion.”

Working with clinicians and psychologists at Marcus Autism Center, Mulle is leading an ongoing study of 3q29 deletion’s effects in humans, and observations from the mice are expected to inform these efforts. (More about Mulle here.) Read more

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Mother’s milk is OK, even for the in-between babies

“Stop feeding him milk right away – just to be safe” was not what a new mother wanted to hear. The call came several days after Tamara Caspary gave birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. She and husband David Katz were in the period of wonder and panic, both recovering and figuring out how to care for them.

“A nurse called to ask how my son was doing,” says Caspary, a developmental biologist in Emory’s Department of Human Genetics. “She started asking about vomiting and other specific symptoms.”

Her son had tested positive by newborn screening for a rare disorder called galactosemia. Galactosemia is an inherited disease that results from inability to metabolize galactose, a component of human milk and cow-milk-based formula. If a baby with “classic” galactosemia continues to drink milk, the baby may quickly develop symptoms such as jaundice, vomiting and diarrhea, progressing to liver disease and other serious complications that can lead to infant death. If a newborn has classic galactosemia, it is critical for the baby to stop drinking milk and switch to a low-galactose formula, such as soy-based formula, as soon as possible.

Caspary and Katz, a cell biologist, learned several days later that their son did not have classic galactosemia but instead had inherited Duarte galactosemia, a milder, more common form of the metabolic disorder, affecting more than 1 in 5,000 children in the United States. But there was still a looming question.

“We needed to figure out what to feed the baby!” Katz exclaimed, recalling their confusion years later.

The looming question was: what to feed the baby?

Their pediatrician didn’t know what to recommend. Galactosemia, in whatever form, is rare enough in the US that most pediatricians don’t develop experience with it. There was no uniform standard of care, and state-level guidelines for children with Duarte galactosemia varied widely, from no dietary restrictions to banning all milk products for the first year. Some of the limited research available at the time suggested that affected children might experience developmental problems as they grew up. Read more

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Sifting through signs of inflammation to analyze causes of Crohn’s disease

When studying Crohn’s disease – an inflammatory disorder of the gastrointestinal tract, a challenge is separating out potential causes from the flood of systemic inflammation inherent in the condition. Researchers led by Subra Kugathasan, MD recently published an analysis that digs under signs of inflammation, in an effort to assess possible causes.

Graduate student Hari Somineni, in Kugathasan’s lab, teamed up with Emory and Georgia Tech geneticists for a sophisticated approach that may have found some gold nuggets in the inflammatory gravel. The results were published in the journal Gastroenterology.

In studying Crohn’s disease, Emory + Georgia Tech researchers may have found some gold nuggets in the inflammatory gravel.

The group looked at DNA methylation in blood samples from pediatric patients with Crohn’s disease, both at diagnosis and after treatment and follow-up. The information came from blood samples from 164 children with Crohn’s disease and 74 controls, as part of the RISK study, which is supported by the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation and Kugathasan leads.

DNA methylation is a dynamic process that can influence molecular phenotypes of complex diseases by turning the gene(s) on or off. The researchers observed that disrupted methylation patterns at the time of diagnosis in pediatric Crohn’s disease patients returned to those resembling controls following treatment of inflammation

“Our study emphasized how important it is to do longitudinal profiling – to look at the patients before and after treatment, rather than just taking a cross section,” Somineni says.

Read more

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Vulnerability to stress – Tet by Tet

Geneticist Peng Jin and colleagues have a paper in Cell Reports this week that is part of a mini-boom in studying the Tet enzymes and their role in the brain. The short way to explain what Tet enzymes do is that they remove DNA methylation by oxidizing it out.

Methylation, a modification of DNA that generally shuts genes off, has been well-studied for decades. The more recent discovery of how cells remove methylation with the Tet enzymes opened up a question of what roles the transition markers have. It’s part of the field of epigenetics: the meaning of these modifications “above” the DNA sequence.

This is my favorite analogy to explain the transition states, such as 5-hydroxymethylcytosine. They’re not really a new letter of the genetic alphabet – they’ve been there all along. We just didn’t see them before.

Imagine that you are an archeologist, studying an ancient civilization. The civilization’s alphabet contains a limited number of characters. However, an initial pass at recently unearthed texts was low-resolution, missing little doodads like the cedilla in French: Ç.

Are words with those marks pronounced differently? Do they have a different meaning?

The new Cell Reports paper shows that it matters what pen writes the little doodads. In mice, removing one Tet enzyme, Tet1, has the opposite effect from removing Tet2, when it comes to response to chronic stress. One perturbation (loss of Tet1) makes the mice more resistant to stress, while the other (loss of Tet2) has them more vulnerable. The researchers also picked up an interaction between Tet1 and HIF1-alpha, critical for regulation of cells’ response to hypoxia. Read more

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Genomics plus human intelligence

Emory geneticists Hong Li and Michael Gambello recently identified the first pediatric case of a rare inherited metabolic disorder: glucagon receptor deficiency. Their findings, published in Molecular Genetics and Metabolic Reports, show the power of gene sequencing to solve puzzles – when combined with human intelligence. Although the diagnosis did not resolve all the issues faced by the patient, it allowed doctors to advise the family about diet and possible pancreatic tumor risk.

The family of a now 9-year-old girl came to Li when the girl was 4 years old. Based on newborn screening, the girl had been diagnosed with a known disorder called arginase deficiency. Arginase breaks down the amino acid arginine; if it is deficient, arginine and toxic ammonia tend to accumulate. At birth, the girl had high arginine levels – hence the initial diagnosis.

The girl had a history of low body weight, anorexia and intermittent vomiting, which led doctors to place a feeding tube through the abdominal wall into her stomach. For several years, she was given a special low-protein liquid diet and supplements, aimed at heading off nutritional imbalance and tissue breakdown. However, she did not have intellectual disability or neurological symptoms, which are often seen with arginase deficiency.

In fact, her blood amino acids, including arginine, were fully normalized, and a genetic test for arginase deficiency was normal as well.  These results were perplexing. By reviewing all the clinical, biochemical and molecular data, Li concluded the girl did not have arginase deficiency, and began looking for an alternative diagnosis. Read more

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Fragile X files — expanded

A genetic disorder caused by silencing of a gene on the X chromosome, fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges.

Amy Talboy, MD

The gene responsible for fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, was identified more than 25 years ago. Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren played a major role in achieving that milestone. His work led to insights into the molecular details of learning and memory, and nationwide clinical trials — which have a more complicated story.

Treating the molecular basis of a neurodevelopmental disorder, instead of simply addressing symptoms, is a lofty goal – one that remains unfulfilled. Now a new study, supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is reviving a pharmacological strategy that Warren had a hand in developing.

“This is a very well thought out approach to studying changes in language and learning in children who are difficult to test,” says Amy Talboy, medical director of Emory’s Down Syndrome and Fragile X clinics, who is an investigator in the NINDS study. “It could change how we conduct these types of studies in the future.” Read more

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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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