Fragile X: preclinical portfolio for PI3k drug strategy

An alternative drug strategy for fragile X is gathering strength. Lots of data on behavior and biochemistry from mouse Read more

Stem cells driven into selective suicide

The term “stem cell” is increasingly stretchy. This is one way to get rid of a particular Read more

The blue spot: where seeds of destruction begin

Learn more about the locus coeruleus, a "canary in the coal Read more

Department of Medicine

ACC 2016: Elevated troponin linked to mental stress ischemia

Some people with heart disease experience a restriction of blood flow to the heart in response to psychological stress. Usually silent (not painful), the temporary restriction in blood flow, called ischemia, is an indicator of greater mortality risk.

Cardiologists at Emory University School of Medicine have discovered that people in this group tend to have higher levels of troponin — a protein whose increased presence in the blood that is a sign of recent damage or stress to the heart muscle– all the time, independently of whether they are experiencing stress or chest pain at that moment.

The results were presented Sunday by cardiology research fellow Muhammad Hammadah, MD at the American College of Cardiology meeting in Chicago, as part of the Young Investigator Awards competition. Hammadah works with Arshed Quyyumi, MD, and Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, and colleagues at the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute.

“Elevated troponin levels in patients with coronary artery disease may be a sign that they are experiencing repeated ischemic events in everyday life, with either psychological or physical triggers,” Hammadah says.

Doctors test for troponin in the blood to tell whether someone has recently had a heart attack. But the levels seen in this study were lower than those used to diagnose a heart attack: less than a standard cutoff of 26 picograms per milliliter, in a range that only a high-sensitivity test for troponin could detect.

In a separate study, Emory investigators have shown that elevated troponin levels (especially: more than 10 pg/mL)  predict mortality risk over the next few years in patients undergoing cardiac catheterization, even in those without apparent coronary artery disease.

There is already a lot of information available for doctors about the significance of elevated troponin. It has even been detected at elevated levels after strenuous exercise in healthy individuals. One recent study suggested that low levels of troponin could be used to rule out heart attack for patients in the emergency department.

More information about the mental stress ischemia study: Read more

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Measuring microbiome disruption

How should doctors measure how messed up someone’s intestinal microbiome is?

This is the topic of a recent paper in American Journal of Infection Control from Colleen Kraft and colleagues from Emory and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The corresponding author is epidemiologist Alison Laufer Halpin at the CDC.

A “microbiome disruption index” could inform decisions on antibiotic stewardship, where a patient should be treated or interventions such as fecal microbial transplant (link to 2014 Emory Medicine article) or oral probiotic capsules.

What the authors are moving towards is similar to Shannon’s index, which ecologists use to measure diversity of species. Another way to think about it is like the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality in a country. If there are many kinds of bacteria living in someone’s body, the disruption index should be low. If there is just one dominant type of bacteria, the disruption index should be high.

In the paper, the authors examined samples from eight patients in a long-term acute care hospital (Wesley Woods) who had recently developed diarrhea. Using DNA sequencing, they determined what types of bacteria were present in patients’ stool. The patients’ samples were compared with those from two fecal microbial transplant donors. Read more

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An effective alternative to fecal transplant for C. difficile?

Bacterial spores in capsules taken by mouth can prevent recurrent C. difficile infection, results from a preliminary study suggest.

Clostridium difficile is the most common hospital-acquired infection in the United States and can cause persistent, sometimes life-threatening diarrhea. Fecal microbiota transplant has shown promise in many clinical studies as a treatment for C. difficile, but uncertainty has surrounded how such transplants should be regulated and standardized. Also, the still-investigational procedure is often performed by colonoscopy, which may be difficult for some patients to tolerate.

The capsule study, published Monday in Journal of Infectious Diseases, represents an important step in moving away from fecal microbiota transplant as a treatment for C. difficile, says Colleen Kraft, MD, assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and medicine (infectious diseases) at Emory University School of Medicine.

Kraft and Tanvi Dhere, MD, assistant professor of medicine (digestive diseases) have led development of the fecal microbiota transplant program at Emory. They are authors on the capsule study, along with investigators from Mayo Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital, Miriam Hospital (Rhode Island), and Seres Therapeutics, the study sponsor.

While this study involving 30 patients did not include a control group, the reported effectiveness of 96.7 percent compares favorably to published results on antibiotic treatment of C. difficile infection or fecal microbial transplant. Read more

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Oxidative stress ain’t about free radicals, it’s about sulfur

This recent paper in Circulation, from Arshed Quyyumi and colleagues at the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute, can be seen as a culmination of, even vindication for,  Dean Jones’ ideas about redox biology.

Let’s back up a bit. Fruit juices, herbal teas, yogurts, even cookies are advertised as containing antioxidants, which could potentially fight aging. This goes back to Denham Harman and the free radical theory of aging. [I attempted to explain this several years ago in Emory Medicine.]

We now know that free radicals, in the form of reactive oxygen species, can sometimes be good, even essential for life. So antioxidants that soak up free radicals to relieve you of oxidative stress: that doesn’t seem to work.

Dean Jones, who is director of Emory’s Clinical Biomarkers laboratory, has been an advocate for a different way of looking at oxidative stress. That is, instead of seeing cells as big bags of redox-sensitive chemicals, look at cellular compartments. Look at particular antioxidant proteins and sulfur-containing antioxidant molecules such as glutathione and cysteine.

That’s what the Circulation paper does. Mining the Emory Cardiovascular Biobank, Quyyumi’s team shows that patients with coronary artery disease have a risk of mortality that is connected to the ratio of glutathione to cystine (the oxidized form of the amino acid cysteine).

How this ratio might fit in with other biomarkers of cardiovascular risk (such as CRP, suPAR, PCSK9, more complicated combinations and gene expression profiles, even more links here) and be implemented clinically are still unfolding.

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Rescuing existing antibiotics with adjuvants

One of the speakers at Thursday’s Antibiotic Resistance Center symposium, Gerald Wright from McMaster University, made the case for fighting antibiotic resistance by combining known antibiotics with non-antibiotic drugs that are used to treat other conditions, which he called adjuvants.

As an example, he cited this paper, in which his lab showed that loperamide, known commercially as the anti-diarrheal Immodium, can make bacteria sensitive to tetracycline-type antibiotics.

Wright said that other commercial drugs and compounds in pharmaceutical companies’ libraries could have similar synergistic effects when combined with existing antibiotics. Most drug-like compounds aimed at human physiology follow “Lipinski’s rule of five“, but the same rules don’t apply to bacteria, he said. What might be a more rewarding place to look for more anti-bacterial compounds? Natural products from fungi and plants, Wright proposed.

“I made a little fist-pump when he said that,” says Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, whose laboratory specializing in looking for anti-bacterial activities in medicinal plants.

Medical thnobotanist Cassandra Quave collecting plant specimens in Italy.

Medical ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave collecting plant specimens in Italy

Indeed, many of the points he made on strategies to overcome antibiotic resistance could apply to Quave’s approach. She and her colleagues have been investigating compounds that can disrupt biofilms, thus enhancing antibiotic activity. More at eScienceCommons and at her lab’s site.

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Galectins defend against bacterial wolves in sheeps’ clothing

To prevent auto-immune attack, our bodies avoid making antibodies against molecules found on our own cells. That leaves gaps in our immune defenses bacteria could exploit. Some of those gaps are filled by galectins, a family of proteins whose anti-bacterial properties were identified by Emory scientists.

In the accompanying video, Sean Stowell, MD, PhD and colleagues explain how galectins can be compared to sheep dogs, which are vigilant in protecting our cells (sheep) against bacteria that may try to disguise themselves (wolves).

The video was produced to showcase the breadth of research being conducted within Emory’s Antibiotic Resistance Center. Because of their ability to selectively target some kinds of bacteria, galectins could potentially be used as antibiotics to treat infections without wiping out all the bacteria in the body. Read more

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IgG4-related means mysterious

Emory rheumatologist Arezou Khosroshahi was the lead author on a differential diagnosis case report in New England Journal of Medicine published in October, which describes an example of IgG4-related disease. This autoimmune condition’s name was agreed upon only recently, at an international conference she co-directed in 2011.

This review calls IgG4-related disease an “orphan disease with many faces.” It sounds like each case has the potential to be an episode of House. As Khosroshahi explains:

“Most patients undergo invasive procedures for resection or biopsy of the affected organ to exclude other conditions. Unfortunately, most of those patients get dismissed by the clinicians, given the good news that their disease was not malignancy. Many of them have recurrence of the condition in other organs after a few months or years.”

Arezou Khosroshahi, MD

Rheumatologist Arezou Khosroshahi, MD

In the case report, a woman was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital, because of shoulder and abdominal pain and an accumulation of fluid around her lungs. Surgeons removed a softball-sized mass from her right lung. The mass did not appear to be cancerous, but instead seemed to be the result of some kind of fibrous inflammation, and the patient was treated with antibiotics. Read more

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Immune studies suggest remedies for parathyroid hormone-driven bone loss

A common cause of bone loss is an overactive parathyroid gland, which doctors usually treat with surgery. New research on how excess parathyroid hormone affects immune cells suggests that doctors could repurpose existing drugs to treat hyperparathyroidism without surgery.

The results were published October 8 in Cell Metabolism. [My apologies for not posting this in October.]

“Surgery is sometimes not an appropriate remedy for hyperparathyroidism because of the condition of the patient, and it is also expensive,” says lead author Roberto Pacifici, MD. “Also, the one pharmacological treatment that is available, cinacalcet, is not always the ideal solution. This work could potentially lead to alternatives.”

Roberto Pacifici, MD

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine led by Pacifici teamed up with doctors from the University of Turin in Italy, combining observations of human patients with an overactive parathyroid with experiments on mice.

The drugs identified as potential treatments are: calcium channel blockers, now used to treat high blood pressure, and antibodies that block the inflammatory molecule IL-17A, under development for the skin disease psoriasis. Clinical trials would be necessary to show that these drugs are effective against parathyroid hormone-induced bone loss in humans. Read more

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CV cell therapy: bridge between nurse and building block

In the field of cell therapy for cardiovascular diseases, researchers see two main ways that the cells can provide benefits:

*As building blocks – actually replacing dead cells in damaged tissues

*As nurses — supplying growth factors and other supportive signals, but not becoming part of damaged tissues

Tension between these two roles arises partly from the source of the cells.

Many clinical trials have used bone marrow-derived cells, and the benefits here appear to come mostly from the “paracrine” nurse function. A more ambitious approach is to use progenitor-type cells, which may have to come from iPS cells or cardiac stem cells isolated via biopsy-like procedures. These cells may have a better chance of actually becoming part of the damaged tissue’s muscles or blood vessels, but they are more difficult to obtain and engineer.

A related concern: available evidence suggests introduced cells – no matter if they are primarily serving as nurses or building blocks — don’t survive or even stay in their target tissue for long.

Transplanted cells were labeled with a red dye, while a perfused green dye shows the extent of functional blood vessels. Blue is DAPI, staining nuclear DNA. Yellow arrows indicate where red cells appear to contribute to blood vessels.

Transplanted cells were labeled with a red dye, while a perfused green dye shows the extent of functional blood vessels. Blue is DAPI, staining nuclear DNA. Yellow arrows indicate where red cells appear to contribute to green blood vessels. Courtesy of Sangho Lee.

Stem cell biologist Young-sup Yoon and colleagues recently published a paper in Biomaterials in which the authors use chitosan, a gel-like carbohydrate material obtained by processing crustacean shells, to aid in cell retention and survival. Ravi Bellamkonda’s lab at Georgia Tech contributed to the paper.

More refinement of these approaches are necessary before clinical use,  but it illustrates how engineered mixtures of progenitor cells and supportive materials are becoming increasingly sophisticated and complicated.

The chitosan gel resembles the alginate material used to encapsulate cells by the Taylor lab. Yoon’s team was testing efficacy in a hindlimb ischemia model, in which a mouse’s leg is deprived of blood. This situation is analogous to peripheral artery disease, and the readout of success is the ability of experimental treatments to regrow capillaries in the damaged leg.

The current paper builds a bridge between the nurse and building block approaches, because the researchers mix two complementary types of cells: an angiogenic one derived from bone marrow cells that expands existing blood vessels, and a vasculogenic one derived from embryonic stem cells that drives formation of new blood vessels. Note: embryonic stem cells were of mouse origin, not human. Read more

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Everything in moderation, especially TH17 cells

I was struck by one part of Mirko Paiardini’s paper that was published this week in Journal of Clinical Investigation. It describes a treatment aimed at repairing immune function in SIV-infected monkeys, with an eye toward helping people with HIV one day. One of the goals of their IL-21 treatment is to restore intestinal Th17 cells, which are depleted by viral infection. In this context, IL-21’s effect is anti-inflammatory.

However, Th17 cells are also involved in autoimmune disease. A recent Cell Metabolism paper from endocrinologist Roberto Pacifici and colleagues examines Th17 cells, with the goal of treating bone loss coming from an overactive parathyroid. In that situation, too many Th17 cells are bad and they need to be beaten back. Fortunately, both an inexpensive blood pressure medication and a drug under development for psoriasis seem to do just that.

Note for microbiome fans: connections between Th17 cells and intestinal microbes (segmented filamentous bacteria) are strengthening. It gets complicated because gut microbiota, together with Th17 cells, may influence metabolic disease and Th17-like cells are also in the skin — location matters.

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