Triple play in science communication

We are highlighting Emory BCDB graduate student Emma D’Agostino, who is a rare triple play in the realm of science communication. Emma has her own blog, where she talks about what it’s like to have cystic fibrosis. Recent posts have discussed the science of the disease and how she makes complicated treatment decisions together with her doctors. She’s an advisor to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on patient safety, communicating research and including the CF community Read more

Deep brain stimulation for narcolepsy: proof of concept in mouse model

Emory neurosurgeon Jon Willie and colleagues recently published a paper on deep brain stimulation in a mouse model of narcolepsy with cataplexy. Nobody has ever tried treating narcolepsy in humans with deep brain stimulation (DBS), and the approach is still at the “proof of concept” stage, Willie says. People with the “classic” type 1 form of narcolepsy have persistent daytime sleepiness and disrupted nighttime sleep, along with cataplexy (a loss of muscle tone in response Read more

In current vaccine research, adjuvants are no secret

Visionary immunologist Charlie Janeway was known for calling adjuvants – vaccine additives that enhance the immune response – a “dirty little secret.” Janeway’s point was that foreign antigens, by themselves, were unable to stimulate the components of the adaptive immune system (T and B cells) without signals from the innate immune system. Adjuvants facilitate that help. By now, adjuvants are hardly a secret, looking at some of the research that has been coming out of Emory Read more

Emory Vaccine Center

Fooling the test: antibiotic resistant bacteria that look susceptible

A diagnostic test used by hospitals says a recently isolated strain of bacteria is susceptible to the “last resort” antibiotic colistin. But the strain actually ignores treatment with colistin, causing lethal infections in animals.

Through heteroresistance, a genetically identical subpopulation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria can lurk within a crowd of antibiotic-susceptible bacteria. The phenomenon could be causing unexplained treatment failures in the clinic and highlights the need for more sensitive diagnostic tests, researchers say.

In Nature Microbiology (published online Monday, May 9), scientists led by David Weiss, PhD, describe colistin-heteroresistant strains of Enterobacter cloacae, a type of bacteria that has been causing an increasing number of infections in hospitals around the world.

“Heteroresistance has been observed previously and its clinical relevance debated,” Weiss says. “We were able to show that it makes a difference in an animal model of infection, and is likely to contribute to antibiotic treatment failures in humans.”

Weiss is director of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center and associate professor of medicine (infectious diseases) at Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Vaccine Center. His laboratory is based at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The co-first authors of the paper are graduate students Victor Band and Emily Crispell.

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Malaria vaccine development: chimeric protein, no myth

Third in a series on malaria immunology from graduate student Taryn McLaughlin. Sorry for the delay last week, caused by technical blog glitches.

It’s easy for me to find reasons to brag when it comes to research here at Emory. However, even an unbiased person should be excited about the malaria vaccine platform being developed by Alberto Moreno at the Emory Vaccine Center.

His vaccine is based on a chimeric protein (a protein that is a combination of bits and pieces of multiple proteins, a la the creature from Greek mythology) that should get your immune system to target multiple stages of the Plasmodium vivax life cycle. Part of it targets the infectious sporozoite, part of it targets the blood stage merozoite, and part of it will even target the transmitted gamete in future versions. This seems like a no brainer. Of course we should be targeting multiple stages! 
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Why malaria vaccine development is hard

In recognition of World Malaria Day, Lab Land will have a series of posts from Taryn McLaughlin, a graduate student in Emory’s IMP program. Her posts will set the stage for upcoming news about malaria research at Emory and Yerkes. Taryn is part of Cheryl Day’s lab and is also an associate producer with the AudiSci podcast.

Those of us in the US are fortunate to not have to consider malaria in our day-to-day lives. Globally though, malaria is a serious public health threat with nearly 3.2 billion people at risk and close to half a million deaths every year. The scientific community has been developing malaria vaccines for decades. Yet a robust vaccine still remains elusive. Why?

IMP graduate student Taryn McLaughlin

IMP graduate student Taryn McLaughlin

One set of barriers comes from economics: malaria’s strongest impact is in developing countries. But there is just as strong a case to be made for scientific obstacles. Frankly, the parasite (technically a bunch of species of microbes that I’ll just lump together under the umbrella term Plasmodium) that causes malaria is just smarter than we are.

I’m only kidding, but it is a fascinating organism. Its complexity makes it difficult to pin down and also interesting to write about. But before we talk about why Plasmodium is such a pain, let’s first discuss what exactly makes an effective vaccine. Read more

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Starvation signals control intestinal inflammation in mice

Intestinal inflammation in mice can be dampened by giving them a diet restricted in amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, researchers have found. The results were published online by Nature on Wednesday, March 16.

The findings highlight an ancient connection between nutrient availability and control of inflammation. They also suggest that a low protein diet — or drugs that mimic its effects on immune cells — could be tools for the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

The research team, led by Emory Vaccine Center immunologist Bali Pulendran, discovered that mice lacking the amino acid sensor GCN2 are more sensitive to the chemical irritant DSS (dextran sodium sulfate), often used to model colitis in animals. This line of research grew out of the discovery by Pulendran and colleagues that GCN2 is pivotal for induction of immunity to the yellow fever vaccine.

“It is well known that the immune system can detect and respond to pathogens, but these results highlight its capacity to sense and adapt to environmental changes, such as nutritional starvation, which cause cellular stress,” he says.

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Mulligan WABE interview on Ebola vaccine research

A recent WABE “Closer Look” interview with Mark Mulligan, executive director of the Emory Vaccine Center’s Hope Clinic, covers a lot of ground. It starts off with a segment — also aired on Marketplace — from reporter Michell Eloy, who visited the Hope Clinic’s lab. We hear a machine processing blood samples from a study testing an experimental Ebola vaccine and a roundup of Ebola vaccine developments.

We also hear from Carl Davis, postdoc in Rafi Ahmed’s lab, who is part of the DARPA-funded team research project studying the utility of antibodies from Ebola survivors. [Other recent news on this topic from The Scientist.]

Then, reporters Rose Scott and Jim Burress discuss several different Ebola vaccines with Mulligan. One is based on chimpanzee adenovirus, was tested at the Hope Clinic and elsewhere in the USA and the UK, and then in Liberia. While this vaccine was safe and it appears to stimulate the immune system appropriately, the outbreak fizzled out (a good thing!) before it was possible to tell if the vaccine protected people from Ebola infection. Read more

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‘Mountain of data’ on flu vaccine responses

Bali Pulendran’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center teamed up with UCSD researchers and recently published a huge analysis of immune responses after seasonal flu vaccination (Immunity is making it available free this week, no subscription needed). Hundreds of volunteers at the Vaccine Center’s Hope Clinic took part in this study.

Note — this study looked at antibody responses to flu vaccines, but didn’t assess protection: whether study participants actually became sick with flu or not.

Our write-up is here. Immunity’s preview, from the Karolinska Institute’s Petter Brodin, is here, Cell Press’s press release is here.

Three points we wanted to call attention to:

*Long-lasting antibodies A surprising finding was how the “molecular signatures” that predict the strength of the immune response a few weeks after vaccination did not predict how long anti-flu antibodies stayed around. Instead, a separate set of signatures predicted the durability of antibody levels.

These distinct signatures may be connected with how plasma cells, responsible for antibody production, need to find homes in the bone marrow. That sounds like the process highlighted by Eun-Hyung Lee and colleagues in an Immunity paper published in July. In bone marrow samples from middle-aged volunteers, her team had found antibody-secreting cells that survive from childhood infections.

*Interfering (?) activation of NK cells/monocytes in elderly While the researchers found people older than 65 tended to have weaker antibody responses to vaccination, there were common elements of molecular signatures that predicted strong antibody responses in younger and older volunteers. However, elderly volunteers tended to have stronger signatures from immune cells that are not directly involved in producing antibodies (monocytes and ‘natural killer’ cells), both at baseline and after vaccination.

From the discussion: “This indicates a potential connection between the baseline state of the immune system in the elderly and reduced responsiveness to vaccination.” Additional comments on this from Shane Crotty in Brad Fikes’ article for the Union Tribune.

*The mountain of data from this and similar studies is available for use by other researchers on the web site ImmPort.

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HIV vaccine news: a glass half full

This week, researchers from Yerkes and Emory Vaccine Center led by Cindy Derdeyn published a paper that I first thought was disturbing. It describes how monkeys vaccinated against HIV’s relative SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) still become infected when challenged with the virus. Moreover, it’s not clear whether the vaccine-induced antibodies are exerting any selective pressure on the virus that gets through.

But then I realized that this might be an example of “burying the lead,” since we haven’t made a big hoopla about the underlying vaccine studies, conducted by Rama Amara. Some of these studies showed that a majority of monkeys can be protected from repeated viral challenge. The more effective vaccine regimens include adjuvants such as the immune-stimulating molecules GM-CSF or CD40L (links are the papers on the protective effects). Read more

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From Berlin to Yerkes

Yerkes immunologist Guido Silvestri and colleagues have a paper in PLOS Pathogens shedding light on the still singular example of Timothy Brown, aka “the Berlin patient”, the only human cured of HIV. Hat tip to Jon Cohen of Science, who has a great explanatory article.

Recall that Brown had lived with HIV for several years, controlling it with antiretroviral drugs, before developing acute myeloid leukemia. In Berlin, as treatment for the leukemia, he received a bone marrow transplant — and not just from any donor; the donor had a HIV-resistance mutation. What was the critical ingredient that enabled HIV to be purged from his body?

Conditioning: the chemotherapy/radiation treatment that eliminates the recipient’s immune system before transplant? HIV-resistant donor cells? Or graft-vs-host disease: the new immune system attacking the old?

Silvestri and colleagues performed experiments with SHIV-infected non-human primates that duplicate most, but not all, of the elements of Brown’s odyssey. The results demonstrate that conditioning, by itself, does not eliminate the virus from the body. But in one animal, it came close. Frustratingly, that animal’s kidneys failed and researchers had to euthanize it. In two others, the virus came back after transplant.

A critical difference from Brown’s experience is that monkeys received their own virus-free blood-forming stem cells instead of virus-resistant cells. Cohen reports that Silvestri hopes to do future monkey experiments that test more of these variables, including transplanting the animals with viral-resistant blood cells that mimic the ones that Brown received. 

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Key to universal flu vaccine: embrace the unfamiliar

Vaccine researchers have developed a strategy aimed at generating broadly cross-reactive antibodies against the influenza virus: embrace the unfamiliar.

In recent years, researchers interested in a “universal flu vaccine” identified a region of the viral hemagglutinin protein called the stem or stalk, which doesn’t mutate and change as much as other regions and could be the basis for a vaccine that is protective against a variety of flu strains.

In an Emory Vaccine Center study, human volunteers immunized against the avian flu virus H5N1 readily developed antibodies against the stem region of the viral hemagglutinin protein. In contrast, those immunized with standard seasonal trivalent vaccines did not, instead developing most of their antibodies against the more variable head region. H5N1, regarded as a potential pandemic strain, is not currently circulating in the United States and the volunteers had not been exposed to it before.

The results were published Monday, August 25 in PNAS.

The key to having volunteers’ bodies produce antibodies against the stem region seemed to be their immune systems’ unfamiliarity with the H5N1 type of virus, says lead author Ali Ellebedy, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

Note: for a counterpoint, check out this 2013 Science Translational Medicine paper on how vaccination that induces anti-stem antibodies contributes to enhanced respiratory disease in pigs.

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Unexpected effect on flu immunity

Immunologists reported recently that the drug rapamycin, normally used to restrain the immune system after organ transplant, has the unexpected ability to broaden the activity of a flu vaccine.

The results, published in Nature Immunology, indicate that rapamycin steers immune cells away from producing antibodies that strongly target a particular flu strain, in favor of those that block a wide variety of strains. The results could help in the effort to develop a universal flu vaccine.

This study was inspired by a 2009 Nature study from Koichi Araki and Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed, reports Jon Cohen in Science magazine. Read more

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