March for Science ATL: photos

Emory scientists and supporters of science were out in substantial numbers Saturday at the March for Science Atlanta in Candler Park. March organizers, many of whom came from the Emory research community, say they want to continue their advocacy momentum and community-building after the event’s Read more

How race + TBI experience affect views of informed consent

The upcoming HBO movie of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds us that biomedical research has a complex legacy, when it comes to informed consent and people of color. A paper from Emory investigators touches on related issues important for conduct of clinical research Read more

Fecal transplant replants microbial garden

Emory physicians explain how FMT (fecal microbiota transplant) restores microbial balance when someone’s internal garden has been Read more

endothelial cells

Direct reprogramming into endothelial cells

Direct reprogramming has become a trend in the regenerative medicine field. It means taking readily available cells, such as skin cells or blood cells, and converting them into cells that researchers want for therapeutic purposes, skipping the stem cell stage.

In a way, this approach follows in Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka’s footsteps, but it also tunnels under the mountain he climbed. Direct reprogramming has been achieved for target cell types such as neurons and insulin-producing beta cells.

Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD

In Circulation Research, Emory stem cell biologist Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD and colleagues recently reported converting human skin fibroblast cells into endothelial cells, which line and maintain the health of blood vessels.

Once reprogrammed, a patient’s own cells could potentially be used to treat conditions such as peripheral artery disease, or to form vascular grafts. Exactly how reprogrammed cells should be deployed clinically still needs to be worked out.

In cardiovascular disease, many clinical trials have been performed using bone marrow cells that were not reprogrammed. Emory readers may be familiar with studies conducted by Arshed Quyyumi, MD and colleagues, in which treatment was delivered after patients’ heart attacks. In those studies, sorted progenitor cells, some of which could become endothelial cells, were introduced into the heart. To provide the observed effects, the introduced cells were more likely supplying supportive growth factors.

In contrast, Yoon’s team is able to produce cells that already have endothelial character hammered into them. The authors have applied for a patent. The co-first authors were instructor Sang-Ho Lee, PhD and Changwon Park, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics. Read more

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Flow mediated dilation

On Friday, researchers from Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute demonstrated a test for how much blood vessels adjust to changes in blood flow. This test is known as “flow-mediated dilation” or FMD. A blood pressure measurement cuff is tightened on the arm for five minutes, restricting blood flow.

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ECCRI investigator Salman Sher, MD demonstrates flow-mediated dilation

When the cuff is released, blood flow increases, but how much the arm’s main artery expands depends on the endothelium – the lining of the artery — and its ability to respond to nitric oxide, which is induced by the increased flow. Researchers monitor the artery’s expansion by ultrasound.

ECCRI co-director Arshed Quyyumi and his colleagues at Emory have extensive experience using the FMD test. Impaired endothelial function is an early stage in the process of atherosclerosis.

The FMD test is relatively non-invasive, in that no catheter probe is necessary. However, practitioners need practice and careful study design to ensure accuracy, ECCRI investigator Salman Sher explained. Posture, time of day and whether the patient has eaten can all affect the results.

Lab Land asked Sher (seated in the photo) whether the effect was similar to the common experience of sleeping on an arm and having it turn numb, followed by “pins and needles” when the pressure is relieved. This feeling actually comes from nerve compression. 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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Deliver, but not to the liver

The potential of a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference has long enticed biotechnology researchers. It’s used routinely in the laboratory to shut down specific genes in cells. Still, the challenge of delivery has held back RNA-based drugs in treating human disease.

RNA is unstable and cumbersome, and just getting it into the body without having it break down is difficult. One that hurdle is met, there is another: the vast majority of the drug is taken up by the liver. Many current RNA-based approaches turn this apparent bug into a strength, because they seek to treat liver diseases. See these articles in The Scientist and in Technology Review for more.

But what if you need to deliver RNA somewhere besides the liver?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo’s lab at Emory/Georgia Tech, working with Katherine Ferrara’s group at UC Davis, has developed technology to broaden the liver-dominant properties of RNA-based drugs.

Hanjoong Jo, PhD

The results were recently published in ACS Nano. The researchers show they can selectively target an anti-microRNA agent to inflamed blood vessels in mice while avoiding other tissues.

“We have solved a major obstacle of using anti-miRNA as a therapeutic by being able to do a targeted delivery to only inflamed endothelial cells while all other tissues examined, including liver, lung, kidney, blood cells, spleen, etc showed no detectable side-effects,” Jo says. Read more

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Ebola’s capriciousness in kids

Anita McElroy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Emory, and her colleagues at the CDC, led by Christina Spiropoulou, have been getting some attention for their biomarker research on Ebola virus infection. Sheri Fink from the New York Times highlighted their work in a Nov. 9 report on the infection’s capriciousness. Genetics may also play a role in surviving Ebola infection, as recent animal research has suggested.

McElroy’s team’s findings attracted notice because their results suggest that Ebola virus disease may affect children differently and thus, children may benefit from different treatment regimens than those for adults. The authors write that early intervention to prevent injury to the lining of blood vessels — using statins, possibly — might be a therapeutic strategy in pediatric patients. Read more

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Targeting antioxidants to mitochondria

Why aren’t antioxidants magic cure-alls?

It’s not a silly question, when one sees how oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species have been implicated in so many diseases, ranging from hypertension and atherosclerosis to neurodegenerative disorders. Yet large-scale clinical trials supplementing participants’ diets with antioxidants have showed little benefit.

Emory University School of Medicine scientists have arrived at an essential insight: the cell isn’t a tiny bucket with all the constituent chemicals sloshing around. To modulate reactive oxygen species effectively, an antioxidant needs to be targeted to the right place in the cell.

Sergei Dikalov and colleagues in the Division of Cardiology have a paper in the July 9 issue of Circulation Research, describing how targeting antioxidant molecules to mitochondria dramatically increases their effectiveness in tamping down hypertension.

Mitochondria are usually described as miniature power plants, but in the cells that line blood vessels, they have the potential to act as amplifiers. The authors describe a “vicious cycle” of feedback between the cellular enzyme NADPH oxidase, which produces the reactive form of oxygen called superoxide, and the mitochondria, which can also make superoxide as a byproduct of their energy-producing function.

Read more

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