Focus on mitochondria in schizophrenia research

Despite advances in genomics in recent years, schizophrenia remains one of the most complex challenges of both genetics and neuroscience. The chromosomal abnormality 22q11 deletion syndrome, also known as DiGeorge syndrome, offers a way in, since it is one of the strongest genetic risk factors for schizophrenia. Out of dozens of genes within the 22q11 deletion, several encode proteins found in mitochondria. A team of Emory scientists, led by cell biologist Victor Faundez, recently analyzed Read more

Fetal alcohol cardiac toxicity - in a dish

Alcohol-induced cardiac toxicity is usually studied in animal models; a cell-culture based approach could make it easier to study possible interventions more Read more

Fighting cancer with combinatorial imagination

Arbiser says he arrived at Tris-DBA-palladium by using his chemist’s imagination, in a “your chocolate landed in my peanut butter” kind of Read more

Department of Human Genetics

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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Fragile X regulation is a finely tuned machine

A PNAS paper published Monday demonstrates the kinds of insights that can be gleaned from a large scale sequencing project examining the fragile X gene.

Most children (boys, usually) who have fragile X syndrome have a particular mutation. An expanded “triplet repeat” stretch of DNA, which is outside the protein-coding region of the gene, puts the entire gene to sleep.

At Emory, geneticist Steve Warren, cell biologist Gary Bassell and colleagues have been identifying less common changes in the fragile X gene by looking in boys who are developmentally delayed, but don’t have the triplet repeat expansion. The first author of the paper is former postdoc Joshua Suhl, now at Booz Allen Hamilton in Massachusetts.

The authors describe two half-brothers who have the same genetic variant, which changes how production of the FMRP protein is regulated. These examples show that the fragile X gene is so central to how neurons function that several kinds of genetic glitches in it can make this finely tuned machine break down.

“This is a hot area and not much is known about it,” Warren says. Read more

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Insight into broken record genetic diseases

Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl records will recall how a scratch can cause the same sounds to repeat many times. A similar type of genetic glitch causes neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and several forms of spinocerebellar ataxia.

Huntington’s and the spinocerebellar ataxias are known as “polyglutamine” diseases. In each, the affected gene has a stretch where the same three DNA letters are repeated several times — more than usual. As a result, the protein encoded by the affected gene has a patch, where only the building block glutamine can be found, disrupting that protein’s usual functions in the body.

Geneticist Xiao-Jiang Li and colleagues recently published a paper in Cell Reports that may explain why more aggressive juvenile-onset forms of polyglutamine diseases have different symptoms and pathology. Read more

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Emory team part of undiagnosed conditions challenge

An Emory team of geneticists and genetics counselors is participating in the Clarity Undiagnosed competition, hosted by Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The team is led by genetics counselor Dawn Laney MS, CGC, CCRC. Team members include: Madhuri Hegde, PhD, William Wilcox, MD,PhD, Michael Gambello, MD, PhD, Rani Singh, PhD, RD, Suma Shankar, MD, PhD, Alekhya Narravula, MS,CGC, Kristin Cornell, MS, CRC, Cristina da Silva, MS, Sarah Richards, MS, CGC and Kimberly Lewis, MS, CGC.

In Clarity Undiagnosed, five families of patients with undiagnosed conditions provide DNA sequence information and clinical summaries to up to 30 competing teams. The teams then do their best to interpret the data and provide answers, and a $25,000 prize will go to the team that solves the mysteries in the most complete way.

At the discretion of the families, short videos of the patients may be available to investigators through producers of a forthcoming documentary film, Undiagnosed, but the teams are barred from direct interaction with the families. A glimpse of some of the families is possible by viewing the trailer. Teams have until September 21 to submit their reports and the results of the competition will be announced in November.

Boston Children’s and Harvard held a similar competition in 2012, which attracted teams from all over the world.

The competition grows out of the NIH-sponsored Undiagnosed Diseases Network; Emory pharmacologists Stephen Traynelis and Hongjie Yuan have been working with the related Undiagnosed Diseases Program based at NIH (very complex 2014 paper, blog post on personalized molecular medicine).

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Regrouping on fragile X drug strategies

Fragile X syndrome has many fascinating aspects:

* the complex inheritance pattern

* its status as the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

*the importance of the RNA-binding protein FMRP as a regulator of synaptic plasticity in neurons

*the potential applicability of drugs developed for fragile X for other forms of ASD

Readers interested in neurodevelopment disorders may want to check out this Nature Reviews Drug Discovery piece, which chews over some setbacks in clinical research on fragile X. Emory researchers have a strong connection with the drug strategies used in the recent clinical trials, but have also been working on alternative approaches. Read more

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Next generation sequencing roundup

The increasing clinical use of next generation sequencing, especially whole exome and whole genome, continues to be a hot topic. The ability to contribute to diagnosis, clinical utility, incidental findings and whether insurance will cover next-gen sequencing are all changing.

A Nature Medicine article lays out a lot of the emerging business issues on next-gen sequencing. On the topic of incidental findings, Buzzfeed science editor Virginia Hughes last week reported stories of women who receive a cancer diagnosis as a result of having a prenatal genetic test.

“These cases, though extremely rare, are raising ethical questions about the unregulated – and rapidly evolving – genetic-testing industry,” Buzzfeed says.

At a recent Department of Pediatrics seminar, Emory geneticist Michael Gambello described examples of how whole exome sequencing, performed to diagnose intellectual disability or developmental problems in a child, can uncover cancer or neurodegenerative disease risk mutations in a parent. The question becomes, whether to notify the parent for something that may or may not be actionable. This is why Emory Genetics Laboratory’s whole exome sequencing service has an extensive “opt-in/opt-out” consent process.

Emory Genetics Laboratory executive director Madhuri Hegde, working with the Association of Molecular Pathology, has been a leader in pushing genetic testing laboratories to adopt best practices. 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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