Mother's milk is OK, even for the in-between babies

“Stop feeding him milk right away – just to be safe” was not what a new mother wanted to hear. The call came several days after Tamara Caspary gave birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. She and husband David Katz were in the period of wonder and panic, both recovering and figuring out how to care for them. “A nurse called to ask how my son was doing,” says Caspary, a developmental Read more

Focus on mitochondria in schizophrenia research

Despite advances in genomics in recent years, schizophrenia remains one of the most complex challenges of both genetics and neuroscience. The chromosomal abnormality 22q11 deletion syndrome, also known as DiGeorge syndrome, offers a way in, since it is one of the strongest genetic risk factors for schizophrenia. Out of dozens of genes within the 22q11 deletion, several encode proteins found in mitochondria. A team of Emory scientists, led by cell biologist Victor Faundez, recently analyzed Read more

Fetal alcohol cardiac toxicity - in a dish

Alcohol-induced cardiac toxicity is usually studied in animal models; a cell-culture based approach could make it easier to study possible interventions more Read more


An indicator of aberrant stem cell reprogramming

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon for the discovery that differentiated cells in the body can be reprogrammed. This finding led to the development of “induced pluripotent stem cells.”

These cells were once skin or blood cells. Through a process of artificial reprogramming in the lab, scientists wipe these cells’ slates clean and return them to a state very similar to that of embryonic stem cells. But not exactly the same.

It has become clear that iPS cells can retain some memories of their previous state. This can make it easier to change an iPS cell that used to be a blood cell (for example) back into a blood cell, compared to turning it into another type of cell. The finding raised questions about iPS cells’ stability and whether iPS cell generation – still a relatively new technique – would need some revamping for eventual clinical use.

Hotspots where iPS cells differ from ES cells

Chromosomal hotspots where iPS cells differ from ES cells

It turns out that iPS cells and embryonic stem cells have differing patterns of methylation, a modification of DNA that can alter how genes behave even if the underlying DNA sequence remains the same. Some of these differences are the same in all iPS cells and some are unique for each batch of reprogrammed cells.

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Alphabet of modified DNA keeps expanding

Move over, A, G, C and T. The alphabet of epigenetic DNA modifications keeps getting longer.

A year ago, we described research on previously unseen information in the genetic code using this metaphor:

Imagine reading an entire book, but then realizing that your glasses did not allow you to distinguish “g” from “q.” What details did you miss?

Geneticists faced a similar problem with the recent discovery of a “sixth nucleotide” in the DNA alphabet. Two modifications of cytosine, one of the four bases that make up DNA, look almost the same but mean different things. But scientists lacked a way of reading DNA, letter by letter, and detecting precisely where these modifications are found in particular tissues or cell types.

Now, a team… has developed and tested a technique to accomplish this task.

Well, Emory geneticist Peng Jin and his collaborator Chuan He at the University of Chicago are at it again.

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A twist on epigenetic therapy vs cancer

Epigenetic therapies against cancer have attracted considerable attention in recent years. But many of the drugs currently being studied as epigenetic anticancer therapies may have indiscriminate effects. A recent paper in Cancer Research from brain cancer researcher Erwin Van Meir’s laboratory highlights a different type of target within cancer cells that may be more selective. Postdoctoral fellow Dan Zhu is the first author of the paper.

Erwin Van Meir, PhD

The basic idea for epigenetic therapy is to focus on how cancer cells’ DNA is wrapped instead of the mutations in the DNA. Cancer cells often have aberrant patterns of methylation or chromatin modifications. Methylation is a punctuation-like modification of DNA that usually shuts genes off, and chromatin is the term describing DNA when it is clothed by proteins such as histones, a form of packaging that determines whether a gene is on or off.

In contrast to mutations that are hard-wired in the DNA, changes in cancer cells’ methylation or chromatin may be reversible with certain drug treatments. But a puzzle remains: if a drug wipes away methylation indiscriminately, that might turn on an oncogene just as much as it might restore a tumor suppressor gene.

The ability of an inhibitor of methylation to treat cancer may depend on cell type and context, explains chromatin/methylation expert and co-author Paula Vertino. She points out that one well-known methylation inhibitor, azacytidine (Vidaza), is a standard treatment for myelodysplastic syndrome, but the strategy of blanket-inhibition of methylation can’t be expected to work for all cancers. A similar challenge exists for agents that target histone acetylation in a global fashion.

Epigenetic therapies seek to modify how DNA is packaged in the cell.

Van Meir’s laboratory has been studying a tumor suppressor protein called BAI1 (brain angiogenesis inhibitor 1), which prevents tumor and blood vessel growth. BAI1 is produced by brain cells naturally, but is often silenced epigenetically in glioblastoma cells. His team found that azacytidine de-represses the BAI1 gene.

Methylation won’t turn a gene off without the help of a set of proteins that bind preferentially to methylated DNA. These proteins are what recognize the methylation state of a given gene and recruit repressive chromatin. Zhu and colleagues in Van Meir’s group found that one particular methyl-binding protein, MBD2, is overproduced in glioblastoma and is enriched on the BAI1 gene.

“Taken together, our results suggest that MBD2 overexpression during gliomagenesis may drive tumor growth by suppressing the anti-angiogenic activity of a key tumor suppressor. These findings have therapeutic implications since inhibiting MBD2 could offer a strategy to reactivate BAI1 and suppress glioma pathobiology,” the authors write.

By itself, MBD2 appears to be dispensable, since mice seem to be able to develop and survive without it. Not having it even seems to push back against tumor formation in the intestine, for example. Targeting MBD2 may represent an alternative way to steer away from cancer cells’ altered state.

Van Meir cautions: “We need to have a better understanding of all the genes that are turned on or off by silencing MBD2 in a given cancer before we can envision to use this approach for therapy.”

Vertino and Steven Hunter, both at Emory, are co-authors on the paper. The work was supported by grants from the NIH and the Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation and the Emory University Research Council.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer 1 Comment

The importance of upbringing

Every time scientists identify genetic risk factors for a human disease or a personality trait, it seems like more weight accumulates on the “nature” side of the grand balance between nature and nurture.

That’s why it’s important to remember how much prenatal and childhood experiences such as education, nutrition, environmental exposures and stress influence later development.

At the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Symposium in December, biologist Victor Corces outlined this concept using a particularly evocative example: bees. A queen bee and a worker bee share the same DNA, so the only thing that determines whether an insect will become the next queen is whether she consumes royal jelly.

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