Transition to exhaustion: clues for cancer immunotherapy

Research on immune cells “exhausted” by chronic viral infection provides clues on how to refine cancer immunotherapy. The results were published Tuesday, Dec. 3 in Immunity. Scientists at Emory Vaccine Center, led by Rafi Ahmed, PhD, have learned about exhausted CD8 T cells, based on studying mice with chronic viral infections. In the presence of persistent virus or cancer, CD8 T cells lose much of their ability to fight disease, and display inhibitory checkpoint proteins Read more

Radiologists wrestle with robots - ethically

Emory bioethicist John Banja says: don’t believe the hype about AI replacing Read more

Opioids: crunching the Tweets

The aim is to be able to spot patterns of overdoses faster than prescription drug monitoring Read more

epigenetics

When genes forget to forget

In ancient Greek mythology, the souls of the dead were made to drink from the river Lethe, so that they would forget their past lives. Something analogous happens to genes at the very beginning of life. Right after fertilization, the embryo instructs them to forget what it was like in the egg or sperm where they had come from.

This is part of the “maternal-to-zygote transition”: much of the epigenetic information carried on and around the DNA is wiped clean, so that the embryo can start from a clean slate.

Developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert once said: “It is not birth, marriage or death which is
the most important time in your life, but gastrulation,” referring to when the early embryo separates into layers of cells that eventually make up all the organs. Well, the MZT, which occurs first, comes pretty close in importance.

When this process of epigenetic reprogramming is disrupted, the consequences are often lethal. Emory cell biologists David Katz and Jadiel Wasson discovered that when mouse eggs are missing an enzyme that is critical for the MZT, on the rare instances when the mice survive to adulthood, they display odd repetitive behaviors. Read more

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Epigenetic inheritance via sperm RNA

In 2013, Brian Dias (at Yerkes) and Kerry Ressler (now at Harvard) described a surprising example of epigenetic inheritance.

They found that a mouse, exposed to a smell in combination with stress, could transmit the resulting sensitivity to that smell to its offspring. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information about mechanism.

Now other scientists have substantiated a proposal that micro RNA in playing a role in sperm. See this story (“Sperm RNAs transmit stress”) from Kate Yandell in The Scientist or this one from Rachel Zamzow at Spectrum, the Simons Foundation’s autism news site, for more. An added wrinkle is that this research shows that descendants of stress-exposed mice show a muted response to stress.

Note for Emory readers: Dias is scheduled to give a Frontiers in Neuroscience talk on Friday.

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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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Many colors in the epigenetic palette

Methylation, an epigenetic modification to DNA, can be thought of as a highlighting pen applied to DNA’s text, adding information but not changing the actual letters of the text.

Are you still with me on the metaphors? If so, consider this wrinkle. (If not, more explanation here.)

Emory geneticist Peng Jin and his colleagues have been a key part of the discovery in the last few years that methylation comes in several colors. His lab has been mapping where 5-hydroxymethylcytosine or 5hmC appears in the genome and inferring how it functions. 5-hmC is particularly abundant in the brain.D5405-2

Methylation, in the form of 5-methylcytosine or 5mC, is both a control button for turning genes off and a sign of their off state. 5hmC looks like 5mC, except it has an extra oxygen. That could be a tag for a removal, or a signal that a gene is poised to be turned on.

Two recent papers on this topic:

Please recall that an enriched environment (exercise and mental stimulation) is good for learning and memory, for young and old. In the journal Genomics, Jin and his team show that exposing mice to an enriched environment  — a running wheel and a variety of toys — leads to a 60 percent reduction in 5hmC in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning and memory.  The changes in 5hmC were concentrated in genes having to do with axon guidance. Hat tip to the all-things-epigenetic site Epigenie.

In Genes and Development, structural biologist Xiaodong Cheng and colleagues demonstrate that two regulatory proteins that bind DNA (Egr1 and WT1) respond primarily to oxidation of their target sequences rather than methylation. These proteins like plain old C and 5mC equally, but they don’t like 5hmC or other oxidized forms of 5mC. “Gene activity could plausibly be controlled on a much finer scale by these modifications than simply ‘on or ‘off’,” the authors write.

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Buzzword overuse alert: epigenetics

The term “epigenetics” has come up a lot here on the Lab Land blog.

In June a discussion came up on Twitter about scientific terms that are overused. I began to wonder whether I was contributing to the problem and may need to tighten up my use of the word “epigenetics.” Read more

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Epigenetic changes in atherosclerosis

If someone living in America and eating a typical diet and leading a sedentary lifestyle lets a few years go by, we can expect plaques of cholesterol and inflammatory cells to build up in his or her arteries. We’re not talking “Super-size Me” here, we’re just talking average American. But then let’s say that same person decides: “OK, I’m going to shape up. I’m going to eat healthier and exercise more.”

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Let’s leave aside whether low-carb or low-fat is best, and let’s say that person succeeds in sticking to his or her declared goals. How “locked in” are the changes in the blood vessels when someone has healthy or unhealthy blood flow patterns?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo and his colleagues published a paper in Journal of Clinical Investigation that touches on this issue. They have an animal model where disturbed blood flow triggers the accumulation of atherosclerosis. They show that the gene expression changes in endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, have an epigenetic component. Specifically, the durable DNA modification known as methylation is involved, and blocking DNA methylation with a drug used for treating some forms of cancer can prevent atherosclerosis in their model. This suggests that blood vessels retain an epigenetic imprint reflecting the blood flow patterns they see.

Although treating atherosclerosis with the drug decitabine is not a viable option clinically, Jo’s team was able to find several genes that are silenced by disturbed blood flow and that need DNA methylation to stay shut off. A handful of those genes have a common mechanism of regulation and may be good therapeutic targets for drug discovery.

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Trend: epigenomics

Nature News recently described a trend noticeable at Emory and elsewhere. That trend is epigenomics: studying the patterns of chemical groups that adorn DNA sequences and influence their activity. Often this means taking a comprehensive genome-wide look at the patterns of DNA methylation.

DNA methylation is a chemical modification analogous to punctuation or a highlighter or censor’s pen. It doesn’t change the letters of the DNA but it does change how that information is received.

One recent example of epigenomics from Emory is a collaboration between psychiatrist Andrew Miller and oncologist Mylin Torres, examining the long-lasting marks left by chemotherapy in the blood cells of breast cancer patients.

Their co-author Alicia Smith, who specializes in the intersection of psychiatry and genetics, reports “EWAS or epigenome-wise association studies are being used in complex disease research to suggest genes that may be involved in etiology or symptoms.  They’re used in medication or diet studies to demonstrate efficacy or suggest side effects.   They’re also used in longitudinal studies to see if particular exposures or characteristics (i.e. low birthweight) have long-term consequences.” Read more

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Valproate: epigenetic solvent

Oncologist Johann Brandes and colleagues from Winship Cancer Institute have a recent study on the preventive effects of valproate, now prescribed for epilepsy and bipolar disorder, against head and neck cancer.

Published in Cancer, it was a clever example of number crunching, using data from the Veterans’ Administration. If you want to know about the anticancer effects of a widely used drug, check who’s already taking it for another reason (25,000 veterans were taking it). The results suggest that valproate – OR a drug that works with a similar mechanism – might be used to prevent head and neck cancer in patients who are at high risk. Also see this related paper from Brandes and colleagues on chemoprevention in lung cancer.

However, any examination of valproate should take into account neurologist Kim Meador’s work on antiepileptic drugs taken by pregnant women — he was at Emory for several years but recently moved to Stanford. His work with the NEAD study definitively showed that valproate, taken during pregnancy, increases the risk of birth defects and intellectual disability in children.

There’s even more about valproate: it might help tone-deaf adults learn to differentiate musical tones, according to one study. It has been used to enhance the reprogramming of somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. It seems that valproate just shakes things up, turning on genes that have been off, erasing decisions that cells have already made.

Valproate is a tricky drug, with several modes of action: it blocks sodium channels, enhances the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and inhibits histone deacetylases. Although the first two may be contributing to the antiepileptic effects, the last one may be contributing to longer-lasting changes. Histone deacetylases are a way a cell keeps genes turned off; inhibit them and you loosen things up, allowing the remodeling of chromatin and unearthing genes that were silenced.

In tumors, genes that prevent runaway growth are silenced. It may be that valproate is loosening chromatin enough to allow the growth control machinery to reemerge, although the effects observed in the Brandes paper are specific for head and neck cancer, and not other forms of cancer. The data suggest that valproate has a preventive effect with respect to smoking-related cancers and not viral-related cancers.

With adults at high risk of cancer recurrence, side effects from valproate may be more acceptable than in other situations. Even so, with follow-up research, it may be possible to isolate where the anticancer effects of valproate come from – that is, which histone deacetylase in particular is responsible – find a more specific drug, and avoid potential broad side effects.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Neuro Leave a comment

Two heavy hitters in this week’s Nature

Two feature articles in Nature this week on work by Emory scientists.

One is from Virginia Hughes (Phenomena/SFARI/MATTER), delving into Kerry Ressler’s and Brian Dias’ surprising discovery in mice that sensitivity to a smell can be inherited, apparently epigenetically. Coincidentally, Ressler will be giving next week’s Dean’s Distinguished Faculty lecture (March 12, 5:30 pm at the School of Medicine).

Another is from Seattle global health writer Tom Paulson, on immunologist Bali Pulendran and using systems biology to unlock new insights into vaccine design.

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Souped-up method for iPS cell reprogramming

Peng Jin and collaborators led by Da-Hua Chen from the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences have a new paper in Stem Cell Reports. They describe a souped-up method for producing iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells).

Production of iPS cells in the laboratory is becoming more widespread. Many investigators, including those at Emory, are using the technology to establish “disease in a dish” models and derive iPS cells from patient donations, turning them into tools for personalized medicine research.

Read more

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