The time Anna stayed up all night

Almost precisely a decade ago, a young Atlanta lawyer named Anna was returning to work, after being treated for an extraordinary sleep disorder. Her story has been told here at Emory and by national media outlets. Fast forward a decade to Idiopathic Hypersomnia Awareness Week 2018 (September 3-9), organized by Hypersomnolence Australia. What this post deals with is essentially the correction of a date at the tail end of Anna’s story, but one with long-term implications Read more

Mini-monsters of cardiac regeneration

Jinhu Wang’s lab is not producing giant monsters. They are making fish with fluorescent hearts. Lots of cool Read more

Why is it so hard to do good science?

Last week, Lab Land put out a Twitter poll, touching on the cognitive distortions that make it difficult to do high-quality science. Lots of people (almost 50) responded! Thank you! We had to be vague about where all this came from, because it was before the publication of the underlying research paper. Ray Dingledine, in Emory’s Department of Pharmacology, asked us to do the Twitter poll first, to see what answers people would give. Dingledine’s Read more

Erwin Van Meir

A sickly sweet anticancer drug

Cancer cells are well known for liking the simple sugar glucose. Their elevated appetite for glucose is part of the Warburg effect, a metabolic distortion that has them sprinting all the time (glycolysis) despite the presence of oxygen.

A collaboration between researchers at Winship Cancer Institute, Georgia State and University of Mississippi has identified a potential drug that uses cancer cells’ metabolic preferences against them: it encourages the cells to consume so much glucose it makes them sick.

Their findings were published in Oncotarget. Read more

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BAI1: a very multifunctional protein

Everything is connected, especially in the brain. A protein called BAI1 involved in limiting the growth of brain tumors is also critical for spatial learning and memory, researchers have discovered.

Mice missing BAI1 have trouble learning and remembering where they have been. Because of the loss of BAI1, their neurons have changes in how they respond to electrical stimulation, and subtle alterations in parts of the cell needed for information processing.

The findings may have implications for developing treatments for neurological diseases, because BAI1 is part of a protein regulatory network neuroscientists think is connected with autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online March 9 in Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Erwin Van Meir, PhD, and his colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have been studying BAI1 (brain-specific angiogenesis inhibitor 1) for several years. Part of the BAI1 protein can stop the growth of new blood vessels, which growing cancers need. Normally highly active in the brain, the BAI1 gene is lost or silenced in brain tumors, suggesting that it acts as a tumor suppressor.

The researchers were surprised to find that the brains of mice lacking the BAI1 gene looked normal anatomically. They didn’t develop tumors any faster than normal, and they didn’t have any alterations in their blood vessels, which the researchers had anticipated based on BAI1’s role in regulating blood vessel growth. What they did have was problems with spatial memory.

Read more

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Explainer: oncolytic viruses

A recent publication from Bill Kaiser’s and Ed Mocarski’s labs in Cell Host & Microbe touches on a concept that needs explaining: oncolytic viruses.

Viruses have been subverting the machinery of healthy cells for millions of years, and many viruses tend to infect particular tissues or cell types. So they are a natural starting point for researchers to engineer oncolytic viruses, which preferentially infect and kill cancer cells.

Several oncolytic viruses have progressed to advanced clinical trials. Amgen’s “T-Vec”, a modified herpes simplex virus, could be the first to be approved by the FDA this year based on its efficacy against metastatic melanoma.  Read more

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Without intent, yet malignant

Brain cancer doesn’t have a purpose or intent. It’s just a derangement of molecular biology, cells that keep growing when they’re not supposed to.

But it’s difficult not to think in terms of purpose or intent when looking at what cancers do.  For example, Winship Cancer Institute scientists Abdessamad (Samad) Zerrouqi, Beata Pyrzynska, Dan Brat and Erwin Van Meir have a recent paper in Cancer Research examining how glioblastoma cells regulate the process of blood clotting.*

Blood clots, often in the legs, are a frequent occurrence in patients fighting glioblastoma, the most common and the most aggressive form of brain cancer. Zerrouqi and http://www.gooakley.com/ Van Meir show that a tumor suppressor gene (p14ARF) that is often mutated in glioblastoma stops them from activating blood clotting. Take away the gene and glioblastoma cells activate the clotting process more.

At first glance, a puzzle emerges: why would a cancer “want” to induce blood clots? Cancer cells often send out growth factors that stimulate the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis). The cells are growing fast, thus they need their own blood supply. Activating clotting seems contradictory: why build a new highway and then induce a traffic jam?

Thrombosis-necrosis

The two left arrows indicate clots causing necrosis around the vessels. Cells at the edge of the necrotic zone (right arrow) tend to be more proliferative and invasive. Image courtesy of Zerrouqi.

In a way, tumor cells are acting somewhat Nietzschean, blindly managing their own cheap oakley evolution according to the principle “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Blood clots lead to both destruction of the healthy and tumor tissue and hypoxia, a shortage of oxygen that drives more aggressiveness in the tumor. The clots create “micro-necroses” at the leading edge of the tumor that over time probably fuse and create a big central necrosis.

“The paradox is that the tumor kills itself and the normal brain, yet the capacity of doing this is the hallmark of the most malignant form of this tumor,” Van Meir says.

“The advantage of tumoral thrombosis will be selection of cells to progress to higher aggressiveness: infiltrative,  resistant to death with conventional Oakley Sunglasses cheap therapies, metabolically adapted to low levels of oxygen and nutrients,” Zerrouqi says. “At this stage, the tumor seems to have a clear deadly intent.”

A fragment of one of the proteins that cancer cells use to exert the clotting effect, called TFPI2, could be used to antagonize blood clotting  therapeutically, they write in Cancer Research. The findings could also have implications for understanding the effects of current medications, such as the angiogenesis inhibitor bevacizumab, also known as Avastin.

*A paper by Van Meir and Dan Brat from 2005 is the top Google link under the search term “glioblastoma clotting.”

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The body’s anticancer defenses come in a variety of sizes

Sometimes you have to look at the whole picture, big and small.

Sarah Cork, PhD

That was the lesson that emerged from Winship Cancer Institute researcher Erwin Van Meir’s laboratory, highlighted in a recent paper in Oncogene. Van Meir’s team has been studying vasculostatin, a secreted protein that inhibits blood vessel growth by tumors (hence the name). Vasculostatin was discovered by Balveen Kaur, now at Ohio State, while she was in Van Meir’s lab.

Van Meir and his colleagues originally began studying vasculostatin because it is a product of a gene that brain tumors somehow silence or get rid of, and studying the obstacles our bodies throws in cancer’s way may be a good way to learn how to fight it via modern medicine. Eventually, it could form the basis for a treatment to prevent a tumor from attracting new blood vessels.

Vasculostatin is somewhat unique because it is a secreted fragment of a membrane-bound protein, called BAI1. BAI1 has an apparently separate function as an “engulfment receptor,” allowing the recognition and internalization of dying cells.

Most of the secreted vasculostatin is around 40 kilodaltons in size, not 120 as previously thought.

Graduate student Sarah Cork discovered that most of the vasculostatin protein being produced by cells is actually much smaller than what had been originally discovered. She and Van Meir were surprised to find that the smaller, cleaved form of the protein still has potent anti-angiogenic activity.

The researchers were using a technique where a mixture of proteins is separated within a gel by electric current, transferred to a polymer sheet, and probed with antibodies. The large proteins appear at the top and the small proteins at the bottom.

“Previously, we had been running the gels for a long time to detect large protein fragments, so missed out on what was happening with small fragments which run off the gel,” Van Meir says. “We were only looking at the top of the
gel, when the smaller form of vasculostatin was actually much more
abundant as you can see on the picture of a gel run for a shorter time.”

More broadly, Van Meir says that the finding adds to understanding about BAI1’s dual function in the brain and how vasculostatin (big or small) might be used in anticancer therapy.

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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.

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Strategies to target cancer stem cells

A story in last Friday’s New York Times highlights research on “cancer stem cells”: a fraction of cells in a tumor that are especially resistant to chemotherapy and resemble the body’s non-cancerous stem cells in their ability to renew themselves.

The story describes work by a team at the Broad Institute, who reported in the journal Cell that they had identified compounds that specifically kill cancer stem cells. The hope is that compounds such as these could be combined with conventional treatments to more effectively eliminate cancers.

However, scientists disagree on whether the phenomenon of cancer stem cells extends to different kinds of cancer and what is the best way to target them. Previously not much was known about how to attack these cells.

Work at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute has been tracking how some biomarkers in cancer cells resemble or differ from those found in stem cells. These markers may help researchers home in on the cancer stem cells.

 

Anticancer therapy must target more than one type of cell. TIC means tumor initiating cell, DTC means differentiated tumor cell, and CPG means cancer progenitor

If "cancer stem cells" play the critical roles some scientists think they do, anticancer therapy must target more than one type of cell. In this figure from Van Meir + Hadjipanayis' review, TIC means tumor initiating cell, DTC means differentiated tumor cell, and CPG means cancer progenitor cells.Â

 

 

In a recent review, Emory brain cancer specialists Erwin Van Meir and Costas Hadjipanayis write:

The “cancer stem cell” hypothesis has invigorated the neuro-oncology field with a breath of fresh thinking that may end up shaking the foundation of old dogmas, such as the widely held belief that glioblastoma tumors are incurable because of infiltrative disease. If the infiltrated cells are in fact differentiated tumor cells, their dissemination beyond the surgical boundary may not be the primary cause of tumor recurrence.

Van Meir, the editor of a new book on brain cancer, adds this comment:

Clearly a lot more work needs to be done to understand the precise cause of glioblastoma recurrence after surgery and chemotherapy and how to prevent it.  The possibility of developing therapeutics that can specifically target the brain cancer stem cells is an exciting new development but will have to proceed with caution to spare normal stem cells in the brain. Developing new imaging tools that can track cancer stem cells in the brain of treated patients is also an important objective and some of the Emory investigators are evaluating the use of nanoparticles to this purpose.

A new faculty member at Winship, Tracy-Ann Read, recently published her research on a molecule that could be used to identify “tumor-propagating cells” in medulloblastoma, a form of brain cancer. She says:

Although cancer stem cells have been identified in many different types of cancer, it is becoming increasingly clear that the properties of these cells may vary greatly among the different tumor types. It is unlikely that one  therapeutic agent will be able to target the cancer stem cells in for example all types brain tumors. Hence  much work still needs to be done in terms of analyzing the properties of these cells in each tumor type and identifying the genes that are responsible for their unique ability to propagate the tumors. 

Winship’s director Brian Leyland-Jones has also reported at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium that molecules that distinguish a hard-to-treat form of breast cancer resemble those that maintain stem cells.

Nice round-up from Nature’s stem cell blog editor Monya Baker

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