Immune outposts inside tumors predict post-surgery outcomes

The immune system establishes “forward operating bases”, or lymph node-like structures, inside the tumors of some patients with kidney and other urologic Read more

Hedgehog pathway outside cilia (with CBD bonus)

The Hedgehog pathway has roles in both specifying what embryonic cells will become and in guiding growing neural Read more

Tracking how steroid hormone receptor proteins evolved

When thinking about the evolution of female and male, consider that the first steroid receptor proteins, which emerged about 550 million years ago, were responsive to estrogen. The ancestor of other steroid hormone receptors, responsive to hormones such as testosterone, progesterone and cortisol, emerged many millions of years later. Biochemist Eric Ortlund and colleagues have a new paper in Structure that reconstructs how interactions of steroid receptor proteins evolved over time. This is a complex Read more

Department of Pediatrics

Overcoming cardiac pacemaker “source-sink mismatch”

Instead of complication-prone electronic cardiac pacemakers, biomedical engineers at Georgia Tech and Emory envision the creation of “biological pacemakers.” Hee Cheol Cho and colleagues have been taking advantage of his work on a gene called TBX18 that can reprogram heart muscle cells into specialized pacemaker cells.

Graduate student Sandra Grijalva in lab

Every heartbeat originates from a small group of cells in the heart called the sinoatrial node. How these cells drive contractions in the relatively massive, and electrically sturdy, rest of the heart is a problem cardiology researchers call the “source-sink mismatch.” Until Cho’s innovations, it was only possible to isolate a handful of pacemaker cells from animal hearts, and the isolated cells could not be cultured.

Cho and colleagues recently published a paper in Advanced Science describing TBX18-induced pacemaker cell spheroids, a platform for studying source-sink mismatch in culture

Graduate student Sandra Grijalva is the first author of the paper. We first spotted Grijalva’s work when it was presented at the American Heart Association meeting in 2017. Read more

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Fetal alcohol cardiac toxicity – in a dish

Alcohol exposure is known to perturb fetal heart development; half of all children with fetal alcohol syndrome have congenital heart defects, such as arrhythmias or structural abnormalities. Chunhui Xu and colleagues recently published a paper in Toxicological Scienceson how human cardiac muscle cells, derived from iPS (induced pluripotent stem cells), can be used as a model for studying the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol-induced cardiac toxicity is usually studied in animal models, but human cells are different, and a cell-culture based approach could make it easier to study the effects of alcohol and possible interventions more easily.

Red shows toxic effects of alcohol on iPS-derived cardiomyocytes

Xu and her colleagues observed that high levels of alcohol damaged cardiac muscle cells and put them under oxidative stress. But even at relatively low concentrations of alcohol, the researchers also saw perturbations in cells’ electrical activity and the ability to contract, which reasonably matches the effects of alcohol on human heart development. The lowest level tested was 17 millimolar – the legal limit for driving in most states (0.08% blood alcohol content). 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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Cells in “little brain” have distinctive metabolic needs

Cells’ metabolic needs are not uniform across the brain, researchers have learned. “Knocking out” an enzyme that regulates mitochondria, cells’ miniature power plants, specifically blocks the development of the mouse cerebellum more than the rest of the brain.

The results were published in Science Advances.

“This finding will be tremendously helpful in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying developmental disorders, degenerative diseases, and even cancer in the cerebellum,” says lead author Cheng-Kui Qu, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, Winship Cancer Institute and Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The cerebellum or “little brain” was long thought to be involved mainly in balance and complex motor functions. More recent research suggests it is important for decision making and emotions. In humans, the cerebellum grows more than the rest of the brain in the first year of life and its development is not complete until around 8 years of age. The most common malignant brain tumor in children, medulloblastoma, arises in the cerebellum.

Qu and his colleagues have been studying an enzyme, PTPMT1, which controls the influx of pyruvate – a source of energy derived from carbohydrates – into mitochondria. They describe pyruvate as “the master fuel” for postnatal cerebellar development.

Cells can get energy by breaking down sugar efficiently, through mitochondria, or more wastefully in a process called glycolysis. Deleting PTPMT1 provides insight into which cells are more sensitive to problems with mitochondrial metabolism. A variety of mitochondrial diseases affect different parts of the body, but the brain is especially greedy for sugar; it never really shuts off metabolically. When someone is at rest, the brain uses a quarter of the body’s blood sugar, despite taking up just 2 percent of body weight in an adult. More here.

Also, see this 2017 item from Stanford on the cerebellum (Nature paper).

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MSCs: what’s in a name?

At a recent symposium of cellular therapies held by the Department of Pediatrics, we noticed something. Scientists do not have consistent language to talk about a type of cells called “mesenchymal stem cells” or “mesenchymal stromal cells.” Within the same symposium, some researchers used the first term, and others used the second.

Guest speaker Joanne Kurtzberg from Duke discussed the potential use of MSCs to treat autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, and hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. Exciting stuff, although the outcomes of the clinical studies underway are still uncertain. In these studies, the mesenchymal stromal cells (the language Kurtzberg used) are derived from umbilical cord blood, not adult tissues.

Nomenclature matters, because a recent editorial in Nature calls for the term “stem cell” not to be used for mesenchymal (whatever) cells. They are often isolated from bone marrow or fat. MSCs are thought have the potential to become cells such as fibroblasts, cartilage, bone and fat. But most of their therapeutic effects appear to come from the growth factors and RNA-containing exosomes they secrete, rather than their ability to directly replace cells in damaged tissues.

The Nature editorial argues that “wildly varying reports have helped MSCs to acquire a near-magical, all-things-to-all-people quality in the media and in the public mind,” and calls for better characterization of the cells and more rigor in clinical studies.

At Emory, gastroenterologist Subra Kugathasan talked about his experience with MSCs in inflammatory bowel diseases. Hematologist Edwin Horwitz discussed his past work with MSCs on osteogenesis imperfecta. And Georgia Tech-based biomedical engineer Krishnendu Roy pointed out the need to reduce costs and scale up, especially if MSCs start to be used at a higher volume.

Several of the speakers were supported by the Marcus Foundation, which has a long-established interest in autism, stroke, cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions.

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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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Fragile X: preclinical portfolio for PI3k drug strategy

Research in mice shows that a pharmacological strategy can alleviate multiple behavioral and cellular deficiencies in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome (FXS), the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online last week by Neuropsychopharmacology, and were presented at the NFXF International Fragile X Conference in Cincinnati.

When the compound GSK6A was given to mice lacking the Fmr1 gene, an established animal model of fragile X syndrome, it relieved symptomatic behaviors, such as impaired social interactions and inflexible decision making, which can be displayed by humans with fragile X syndrome.

The findings indicate that treatment with GSK6A or a similar compound could be a viable strategy for addressing cognitive and behavioral problems in fragile X syndrome; this would need to be tested directly in clinical trials. GSK6A inhibits one particular form of a cellular signaling enzyme: the p110β form of PI3 (phosphoinositide-3) kinase. A closely related p110β inhibitor is already in clinical trials for cancer.

Video from the iBook “Basic Science Breakthroughs: Fragile X Syndrome”. Narration by Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren, whose team identified the gene responsible for fragile X.

“Our results suggest that p110β inhibitors can be repurposed for fragile X syndrome, and they have implications for other subtypes of autism spectrum disorders that are characterized by similar alterations of this pathway,” says Gary Bassell, PhD, professor and chair of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Right now, no proven efficient treatments are available for fragile X syndrome that are targeted to the disease mechanism,” says Christina Gross, PhD, from Cincinnati Children’s. “We think that p110β is an appropriate target because it is directly regulated by FMRP, and it is overactivated in both mouse models and patient cell lines.”

The paper represents a collaboration between three laboratories: two at Emory led by Bassell and Shannon Gourley, PhD, and one at Cincinnati Children’s, led by Gross. Gourley is based at Yerkes National Primate Research Center; see this earlier item on her collaboration with Bassell here.

While the researchers are discussing clinical trials of p110β inhibitors in fragile X syndrome, they say that long-term studies in animals are needed to ensure that undesirable side effects do not appear. More here.

With respect to clinical trials, the fragile X community has been disappointed before. Based on encouraging studies in mouse models, drugs targeting mGluR5 glutamate receptors were tested in adolescents and adults. mGluR5 drugs did not show clear benefits; recent re-evaluation suggests the choice of outcome measures, the ages of study participants and drug tolerance may have played a role.

Warren played a major role in developing the mGluR5 approach and Emory investigators were part of those studies. More recently, clinical trials for one of the mGluR5 medications were revived in younger children and Emory is a participating site. Also, see this 2016 discussion in Spectrum with Elizabeth Berry-Kravis on the fragile X mouse model; Bassell, Gross and Gourley have made some inroads on the limitations Berry-Kravis describes.

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Stem cells driven into selective suicide

The term “stem cell” is increasingly stretchy. Orthopedic specialists have been using it when referring to bone marrow concentrate or platelet rich plasma, which are marketed as treatments for joint pain. At Lab Land, we have an interest in pluripotent stem cells, which can differentiate into many types of tissues.

For many applications, the stem cells are actually impurities that need to be removed, because pluripotent stem cells are capable of becoming teratomas, a type of tumor. For quality control, researchers want to figure out how to ensure that the stem-cell-derived cardiac muscle or neural progenitor or pancreas cells (or whatever) are as pure as possible.

Cardiologist and stem cell expert Chunhui Xu has been continuing a line of investigation on this topic. In a recent paper in ACS Chemical Biology, her team showed that “suicide-inducing molecules” can eliminate undifferentiated stem cells from a mixture of cells. This stem-cell-derived mixture was mostly cardiac muscle cells or their progenitors, which Xu’s team wants to use for therapeutic purposes.

Other labs have used metabolic selection – depriving cells of glucose and giving them only lactate –as a selective method for eliminating stem cells from cardiac muscle cultures. This paper shows that the “selective suicide” method works for early-stage differentiation cultures, containing cardiac progenitors, while the metabolic method works only for late-stage cultures contains beating cardiomyocytes.

Read more

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Less mucus, more neutrophils: alternative view of CF

A conventional view of cystic fibrosis (CF) and its effects on the lungs is that it’s all about mucus. The inherited disease leads to an accumulation of mucus in the lungs, which appears to be connected with inflammation, susceptibility to infection and loss of lung capacity.

Immunologist Rabin Tirouvanziam has an alternative view, centered on neutrophils. They are a type of immune cell that is very numerous, yet often overlooked, he says.

Rabindra Tirouvanziam, PhD

A new paper, published in Journal of Leukocyte Biology, substantiates his ideas about cystic fibrosis and harnesses them for future diagnostic and therapeutic advances. Tirouvanziam is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Children’s Center. He and his colleagues have developed a system for studying neutrophil behavior in a specialized culture, a model of a cell layer in the lung.

Neutrophils behave differently in the diseased lung environment, compared with when they are in the blood. The culture system makes the neutrophils pass through a layer of lung cells, under the influence of lung fluids obtained from CF patients. The culture system opens up the opportunity of testing fluids from patients to mark disease progression, as well as drug discovery: looking for compounds that could deprogram the neutrophils. Read more

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For nanomedicine, cell sex matters

The biological differences between male and female cells may influence their uptake of nanoparticles, which have been much discussed as specific delivery vehicles for medicines.

Biomedical engineer Vahid Serpooshan, PhD

New Emory/Georgia Tech BME faculty member Vahid Serpooshan has a recent paper published in ACS Nano making this point. He and his colleagues from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Stanford/McGill/UC Berkeley tested amniotic stem cells, derived from placental tissue. They found that female amniotic cells had significantly higher uptake of nanoparticles (quantum dots) than male cells. The effect of cell sex on nanoparticle uptake was reversed in fibroblasts. The researchers also found out that female versus male amniotic stem cells exhibited different responses to reprogramming into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Female human amniotic stem cells with nanoparticles .Green: quantum dots/ nanoparticles; red: cell staining; blue: nuclei.

“We believe this is a substantial discovery and a game changer in the field of nanomedicine, in taking safer and more effective and accurate steps towards successful clinical applications,” says Serpooshan, who is part of the Department of Pediatrics and the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory.

Serpooshan’s interests lie in the realm of pediatric cardiology. His K99 grant indicates that he is planning to develop techniques for recruiting and activating cardiomyoblasts, via “a bioengineered cardiac patch delivery of small molecules.” Here at Emory, he joins labs with overlapping interests such as those of Mike Davis, Hee Cheol Cho and Nawazish Naqvi. Welcome!

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