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Unlocking schizophrenia biology via genetics

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Brain circuitry linked to social connection and desire to cuddle

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Department of Human Genetics

Gene editing reverses Huntington’s in mouse model

Disrupting a problematic gene in brain cells can reverse Huntington’s disease pathology and motor symptoms in a mouse model of the inherited neurological disorder, Emory scientists report.

The researchers used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing, delivered by a viral vector, to snip part of a gene producing toxic protein aggregates in the brains of 9-month old mice. Weeks later, where the vector was applied, aggregated proteins had almost disappeared. In addition, the motor abilities of the mice had improved, although not to the level of control mice.

The results were published June 19, 2017 in Journal of Clinical InvestigationEncouraging Tweet from Scripps MD/author Eric Topol.

The findings open up an avenue for treating Huntington’s as well as other inherited neurodegenerative diseases, although more testing of safety and long-term effects is needed, says senior author Xiao-Jiang Li, MD, PhD, distinguished professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine.

Huntington’s disease is caused by a gene encoding a toxic protein (mutant huntingtin or mHTT) that causes brain cells to die. Symptoms commonly appear in mid-life and include uncontrolled movements, balance problems, mood swings and cognitive decline.

Touted widely for its potential, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing has not been used to treat any neurodegenerative disease in humans. Several concerns need to be addressed before its use, such as effective delivery and the safety of tinkering with DNA in brain cells. A similar approach, but using a different technology (zinc finger nucleases), was reported for Huntington’s disease in 2012.  Read more

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NGLY1 update

Emory Medicine readers may remember the Stinchcombs, a Georgia family caring for two daughters with a genetic neurological/developmental disorder called NGLY1 deficiency. We found their efforts to care for their daughters inspiring.

The rapid discovery of several children with NGLY1 deficiency, facilitated by social media, has led to a wave of research. Two recent papers represent advances toward finding treatments.

In PLOS Genetics, Japanese scientists showed that deleting the ENGase gene can partially rescue problems created by NGLY1 deficiency in a mouse model (RIKEN press release). That implies drugs that inhibit the ENGase enzyme might have similar positive effects.

Scientists knew that the NGLY1 enzyme removes chains of sugars from misfolded proteins that are stalled in cells’ production pipeline. ENGase is another enzyme that acts on those sugar chains, and its absence compensates for the lack of NGLY1. Read more

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Nerve gas, angel dust and genetic epilepsy

Last week, Lab Land noticed similarities between two independent lines of research from the Escayg and Traynelis/Yuan labs at Emory. Both were published recently and deal with rare forms of genetic epilepsy, in which molecular understanding of the cause leads to individualized treatment, albeit with limited benefit.

Both conditions are linked to an excess of neuronal excitation, and both can be addressed using medications that have also been tested for Alzheimer’s. A critical difference is that memantine is FDA-approved for Alzheimer’s, but huperzine A is not.

What condition? Dravet syndrome/GEFS+ Epilepsy-aphasia syndrome
What gene is mutated? SCN1A – sodium ion channel GRIN2A – NMDA receptor subunit
What is the beneficial drug? Huperzine A Memantine
How does the drug work? Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor NMDA receptor antagonist
Other drugs that use the same mechanism Alzheimer’s medications such as donepezil

Irreversible + stronger: insecticides, nerve gas

Ketamine, phencyclidine (aka PCP)
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Strain differences in Zika infection genes

Scientists have revealed molecular differences between how the African and Asian strains of Zika virus infect neural progenitor cells. The results could provide insights into the Zika virus’ recent emergence as a global health emergency, and also point to inhibitors of the p53 pathway as potential leads for drugs that could protect brain cells from cell death.

The findings, from the Emory/Johns Hopkins/Florida State team that showed this spring that neural progenitor cells are particularly vulnerable to Zika infection (related paper), were published this week in Nucleic Acid Research. The manuscript was also posted on BioRxiv before publication.

Zika infection genes

Overlap in gene expression changes when neural progenitor cells are infected by African or Asian strains of Zika virus. Diagram from Nucleic Acids Research via Creative Commons.

Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in the 1940s, and two distinct lineages of Zika diverged sometime in the second half of the 20th century: African and Asian. The strains currently circulating in the Western Hemisphere, which have been linked to microcephaly in infants and Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults, are more closely related to the Asian lineage.

The research team catalogued and compared genes turned on and off by Asian and African strains of Zika virus, as well as dengue virus, in human neural progenitor cells. The authors describe dengue as inducing more robust changes in gene expression than either strain of Zika. Although they show that dengue can infect neural progenitor cells like Zika can, dengue infection does not stunt the cells’ growth or lead to cell death.

“This shows that the differences between Zika and dengue are not at the level of being able to infect neural progenitors, but more about the harm Zika causes when it does infect those cells,” says senior author Peng Jin, PhD, professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine. Read more

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HD monkeys display full spectrum of symptoms seen in humans

Transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys display a full spectrum of symptoms resembling the human disease, ranging from motor problems and neurodegeneration to emotional dysregulation and immune system changes, scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University report.

The results, published online in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, strengthen the case that transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys could be used to evaluate emerging treatments (such as this) before launching human clinical trials.

“Identifying emotional and immune symptoms in the HD monkeys, along with previous studies demonstrating their cognitive deficits and fine motor problems, suggest the HD monkey model embodies the full array of symptoms similar to human patients with the disease,” says Yerkes research associate Jessica Raper, PhD, lead author of the paper. Read more

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Four take-home thoughts on NGLY1

Please check out our feature in Emory Medicine magazine about two sisters with NGLY1 deficiency. This rare genetic disorder was identified only a few years ago, and now a surge of research is directed toward uncovering its mysteries.

  1. The Stinchcombs are amazing. Seth Mnookin’s July 2014 piece in the New Yorker, and especially, his comments at the end of an interview with The Open Notebook drove me to contact them. “The father cares for the two girls with this disease full time. The mother is working insane hours. And while all this is going on, they’re the most good-natured … I don’t know, they just seem like they’re happy.”
  1. Several research teams around the world are investigating NGLY1 deficiency and potential remedies. For the magazine article, I talked with Emory geneticist Michael Gambello, Hudson Freeze at Sanford Burnham and Lynne Wolfe at the NIH Undiagnosed Diseases Program. Even more: the Grace Science Foundation, established by the Wilsey family, is supporting research at Retrophin/Notre Dame and Gladstone/UCSF. The independent Perlstein lab is investigating NGLY1 deficiency in fruit flies (reminiscent of Emory research from a decade ago on Fragile X syndrome).
  1. There’s a long road ahead for rare genetic disorders such as NGLY1 deficiency. That’s why the title that EM editor Mary Loftus came up with, “In time to help Jessie,” is so poignant. When I read Abby Goodnough’s New York Times piece on RCDP, which is a rare inherited bone disease that also involves seizures, I thought: “That could be NGLY1 in ten years.” Still, progress is possible, as demonstrated by this recent NEJM report on exome sequencing and neurometabolic disorders from British Columbia.

Read more

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Rare inherited musculoskeletal disorder illustrates broader themes

More than fifteen years ago, Emory geneticist William Wilcox was a visiting professor in Montevideo, Uruguay. There he worked with local doctors, led by Roberto Quadrelli, to study a family whose male members appeared to have an X-linked inherited disorder involving heart disease and musculoskeletal deformities.

In March 2016, Wilcox and his colleagues reported in Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics that they had identified the genetic mutation responsible for the disorder, called “Uruguay syndrome.” His former postdoc Yuan Xue, now a lab director at Fulgent Diagnostics and a course instructor in Emory’s genetics counseling program, was the lead author.

Wilcox_William_Genetics_22

William Wilcox, MD, PhD

“It took many years and advances in technology to move the molecular definition from localization on the X chromosome to a specific mutation,” Wilcox says.

Still, with current DNA sequencing technology, this kind of investigation and genetic discovery takes place all the time. Why focus on this particular paper or family?

*This gene is a big tent — Mutations in FHL1, the gene that is mutated in the Uruguayan family, are responsible for several types of inherited muscle disorders, which differ depending on the precise mutation. In 2013, an international workshop summarized current knowledge on this family of diseases.

Some forms of FHL1 mutation are more severe, such as reducing body myopathy, which can have early childhood onset leading to respiratory failure. Other forms are less severe. While some men in the Uruguayan family died early from heart disease, the man who Wilcox helped treat is now teaching high school and his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is stable on a beta blocker.

“Studying a sample of his muscle proved that we had the right gene and some of what the mutation does,” Wilcox says.

*Studying rare mutations can lead to blockbuster drugs – The discovery of potent yet expensive cholesterol-lowering PCSK9 inhibitors, which grew out of the study of familial hypercholesterolemia, is a prominent example.

FHL1 regulates muscle growth by interacting with several other proteins. Probing its function may yield insights with implications for the treatment of muscular dystrophies and possibly for athletes. As NPR’s Jon Hamilton explains, the development of myostatin inhibitors, intended to help people with muscle-wasting diseases, has led to concern about them becoming the next generation of performance-enhancing drugs. Read more

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Silence away, HD investigators!

Adult mice don’t need the gene that, when mutated in humans, causes the inherited neurodegenerative disorder Huntington’s disease. The finding suggests that treatment strategies for Huntington’s that aim to shut off the huntingtin gene in adults — now in early clinical stages — could be safe.

The results were published Monday, March 7 in PNAS.

How HD gene silencing is supposed to work. The Emory study didn’t test this approach directly, but the Emory study has implications for what types of side effects HD gene silencing may have in humans. Image from HDBuzz.net via Creative Commons.

Huntington’s disease is caused by a gene encoding a toxic protein (mutant huntingtin) that causes brain cells to die. Symptoms commonly appear in mid-life and include uncontrolled movements, balance problems, mood swings and cognitive decline. A juvenile form of Huntington’s disease also can appear during the teenage years.

Researchers led by Xiao-Jiang Li, MD, PhD and Shihua Li, MD, at Emory University School of Medicine, used genetically engineered mice in which the huntingtin gene can be deleted, triggered only when the mice are given the drug tamoxifen. Note: these mice don’t produce toxic mutant huntingtin protein.

When the huntingtin gene is deleted at an age older than four months, these mice appeared to stay healthy, despite having lost their huntingtin genes in cells all over their bodies. They maintained their body weight and could complete tests of movement and grip strength as well as control mice. In contrast with adults, engineered mice younger than four months old whose huntingtin gene was deleted developed lethal pancreatitis.

Read more

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Metagenomics explainer

A term we heard a bunch at the Emory Microbiome Symposium in November was “metagenomics”. Time for an explainer, with some help from Emory geneticist Tim Read.

Nature Reviews Microbiology defines metagenomics as “genomic analysis of microbial DNA that is extracted directly from communities in environmental samples.”

This technology — genomics on a huge scale — enables a survey of the different microorganisms present in a specific environment, such as water or soil, to be carried out. Metagenomics is also emerging as a tool for clinical diagnosis of infectious diseases.

Read notes that the term specifically refers to “shotgun” sequencing of environmental DNA.

“The shotgun approach is to randomly sample small pieces of the DNA in the tube, no matter which organism they came from,” he says. “The output is a mélange of different genes from bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants and humans.  The data is fascinating but the analysis is daunting.” Read more

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Autoimmune gene link for subtype of juvenile arthritis

Geneticist Sampath Prahalad and the families he works with were part of this recent PNAS paper, which probes genetic risk factors for systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

There are several subtypes of juvenile arthritis, and sJIA (systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis) sounds especially painful because of its inflammatory symptoms: daily spiking fever and skin rashes in addition to joint pain.

The international team of investigators assembled what they report as the largest collection of sJIA patients (close to 1000) and identified HLA-DRB1*11 as a genetic risk factor for sJIA.

HLA-DRB1 alleles have also been linked to autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes and (adult) rheumatoid arthritis. The finding strengthens the case for trying existing medications that target T cell activation in sJIA. Read more

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