Peeling away pancreatic cancers' defenses

A combination immunotherapy approach that gets through pancreatic cancers’ extra Read more

Immune cell activation in severe COVID-19 resembles lupus

In severe cases of COVID-19, Emory researchers have been observing an exuberant activation of B cells, resembling acute flares in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease. The findings point towards tests that could separate some COVID-19 patients who need immune-calming therapies from others who may not. It also may begin to explain why some people infected with SARS-CoV-2 produce abundant antibodies against the virus, yet experience poor outcomes. The results were published online on Oct. Read more

Muscle cell boundaries: some assembly required

The worm C elegans gives insight into muscle cell assembly + architecture Read more

Fragile X Syndrome

Fragile X: $8 million NIH grant supports next-generation neuroscience

Supported by a $8 million, five-year grant, an Emory-led team of scientists plans to investigate new therapeutic approaches to fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism.

Fragile X research represents a doorway to a better understanding of autism, and learning and memory. The field has made strides in recent years. Researchers have a good understanding of the functions of the FMR1 gene, which is silenced in fragile X syndrome.

Still, clinical trials based on that understanding have been unsuccessful, highlighting limitations of current mouse models. Researchers say the answer is to use “organoid” cultures that mimic the developing human brain.

The new grant continues support for the Emory Fragile X Center, first funded by the National Institutes of Health in 1997. The Center’s research program includes scientists from Emory as well as Stanford, New York University, Penn and the University of Southern California. The Emory Center will be one of three funded by the National Institutes of Health; the others are at Baylor College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The co-directors for the Emory Fragile X Center are Peng Jin, PhD, chair of human genetics, and Stephen Warren, PhD, William Patterson Timmie professor and chair emeritus of human genetics. In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren led an international team that discovered the FMR1 gene and the mechanism of trinucleotide repeat expansion that silences the gene. This explained fragile X syndrome’s distinctive inheritance pattern, first identified by Emory geneticist Stephanie Sherman, PhD.

“Fragile X research is a consistent strength for Emory, stretching across several departments, based on groundbreaking work from Steve and Stephanie,” Jin says. “Now we have an opportunity to apply the knowledge we and our colleagues have gained to test the next generation of treatments.”

Fragile X researchers from three Emory departments, following COVID-19 spacing guidelines in the laboratory. From left to right: Peng Jin, Gary Bassell, Zhexing Wen and Nisha Raj.

Looking ahead, a key element of the Center’s research will involve studying the human brain in “disease in a dish” models, says Gary Bassell, PhD, chair of cell biology. Nisha Raj, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab, has been studying how FMR1 regulates localized protein synthesis at the brain’s synapses.

“What we’re learning is that there may be different RNA targets in human and mouse cells,” he says. “There’s a clear need to regroup and incorporate human cells into the research.”

Microscope images of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells.
Microscope image of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells. 

Center investigator Zhexing Wen, PhD, has developed techniques for culturing brain organoids (image above), which reproduce features of human brain development in miniature. Wen, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, cell biology and neurology at Emory, has used organoids to model other disorders, such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The organoids are formed from human brain cells, coming from induced pluripotent stem cells, which are in turn derived from patient-donated tissues. Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, directed by Bassell, has developed several lines of induced pluripotent stem cells from fragile X syndrome patients.

“All of the investigators are sharing these valuable resources and collaborating on multiple projects,” Bassell says.

Principal investigators in the Emory Fragile X Center are Jin, Warren, Bassell, and Wen, along with Eric Klann, PhD at New York University, Lu Chen, PhD, and 2013 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof, MD. Chen and Südhof are neuroscientists at Stanford.

Co-investigators include biostatistician Hao Wu, PhD and geneticist Emily Allen, PhD at Emory, neuroscientist Guo-li Ming, MD, PhD, at University of Pennsylvania, and biomedical engineer Dong Song, PhD, at University of Southern California.
 
Allen, Warren and Jin are part of an additional grant to Baylor, Emory and University of Michigan investigators, who are focusing on FXTAS (fragile X-associated tremor-ataxia syndrome) and FXPOI (fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency). These are conditions that affect people with fragile X premutations.

Fragile X syndrome is caused by a genetic duplication on the X chromosome, a “triplet repeat” in which a portion of the gene (CGG) gets repeated again and again. Fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges. About a third of children affected have characteristics of autism, such as problems with eye contact, social anxiety, and delayed speech. 
 
The award for the Emory Fragile X Center is administered by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Probing hyperexcitability in fragile X syndrome

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine have gained insight into a feature of fragile X syndrome, which is also seen in other neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders.

In a mouse model of fragile X syndrome, homeostatic mechanisms that would normally help brain cells adjust to developmental changes don’t work properly. This helps explain why cortical hyperexcitability, which is linked to sensory sensitivity and seizure susceptibility, gradually appears during brain development.

Studying a model of fragile X syndrome, Emory researchers were looking at neurons displaying single spiking and multi-spiking behavior. 

These physiological insights could help guide clinical research and efforts at early intervention, the scientists say. The results were published Feb. 5 by Cell Reports (open access).

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a leading single-gene cause of autism. Individuals with fragile X syndrome often display sensory sensitivity and some — about 15 percent— have seizures.

Scientists’ explanation for these phenomena is cortical hyperexcitability, meaning that the response of the cortex (the outer part of the brain) to sensory input is more than typical. Cortical hyperexcitability has also been observed in the broader category of autism spectrum disorder, as well as migraine or after a stroke.

At Emory, graduate student Pernille Bülow forged a collaboration between Peter Wenner, PhD and Gary Bassell, PhD. Wenner, interested in homeostatic plasticity, and Bassell, an expert in fragile X neurobiology, wanted to investigate why a mechanism called homeostatic intrinsic plasticity does not compensate for the changes in the brain brought about in fragile X syndrome. More here.

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Fragile X files — expanded

A genetic disorder caused by silencing of a gene on the X chromosome, fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges.

Amy Talboy, MD

The gene responsible for fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, was identified more than 25 years ago. Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren played a major role in achieving that milestone. His work led to insights into the molecular details of learning and memory, and nationwide clinical trials — which have a more complicated story.

Treating the molecular basis of a neurodevelopmental disorder, instead of simply addressing symptoms, is a lofty goal – one that remains unfulfilled. Now a new study, supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is reviving a pharmacological strategy that Warren had a hand in developing.

“This is a very well thought out approach to studying changes in language and learning in children who are difficult to test,” says Amy Talboy, medical director of Emory’s Down Syndrome and Fragile X clinics, who is an investigator in the NINDS study. “It could change how we conduct these types of studies in the future.” Read more

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Fragile X: preclinical portfolio for PI3k drug strategy

Research in mice shows that a pharmacological strategy can alleviate multiple behavioral and cellular deficiencies in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome (FXS), the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online last week by Neuropsychopharmacology, and were presented at the NFXF International Fragile X Conference in Cincinnati.

When the compound GSK6A was given to mice lacking the Fmr1 gene, an established animal model of fragile X syndrome, it relieved symptomatic behaviors, such as impaired social interactions and inflexible decision making, which can be displayed by humans with fragile X syndrome.

The findings indicate that treatment with GSK6A or a similar compound could be a viable strategy for addressing cognitive and behavioral problems in fragile X syndrome; this would need to be tested directly in clinical trials. GSK6A inhibits one particular form of a cellular signaling enzyme: the p110β form of PI3 (phosphoinositide-3) kinase. A closely related p110β inhibitor is already in clinical trials for cancer.

Video from the iBook “Basic Science Breakthroughs: Fragile X Syndrome”. Narration by Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren, whose team identified the gene responsible for fragile X.

“Our results suggest that p110β inhibitors can be repurposed for fragile X syndrome, and they have implications for other subtypes of autism spectrum disorders that are characterized by similar alterations of this pathway,” says Gary Bassell, PhD, professor and chair of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Right now, no proven efficient treatments are available for fragile X syndrome that are targeted to the disease mechanism,” says Christina Gross, PhD, from Cincinnati Children’s. “We think that p110β is an appropriate target because it is directly regulated by FMRP, and it is overactivated in both mouse models and patient cell lines.”

The paper represents a collaboration between three laboratories: two at Emory led by Bassell and Shannon Gourley, PhD, and one at Cincinnati Children’s, led by Gross. Gourley is based at Yerkes National Primate Research Center; see this earlier item on her collaboration with Bassell here.

While the researchers are discussing clinical trials of p110β inhibitors in fragile X syndrome, they say that long-term studies in animals are needed to ensure that undesirable side effects do not appear. More here.

With respect to clinical trials, the fragile X community has been disappointed before. Based on encouraging studies in mouse models, drugs targeting mGluR5 glutamate receptors were tested in adolescents and adults. mGluR5 drugs did not show clear benefits; recent re-evaluation suggests the choice of outcome measures, the ages of study participants and drug tolerance may have played a role.

Warren played a major role in developing the mGluR5 approach and Emory investigators were part of those studies. More recently, clinical trials for one of the mGluR5 medications were revived in younger children and Emory is a participating site. Also, see this 2016 discussion in Spectrum with Elizabeth Berry-Kravis on the fragile X mouse model; Bassell, Gross and Gourley have made some inroads on the limitations Berry-Kravis describes.

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Toe in the water for Emory cryo-EM structures

Congratulations to Christine Dunham and colleagues in the Department of Biochemistry for their first cryo-electron microscopy paper, recently published in the journal Structure.

The paper solves the structure of a bacterial ribosome bound to a messenger RNA containing a loop that regulates translation. This process is important for the study of several neurological diseases such as fragile X syndrome, for example.

Christine Dunham, PhD

Dunham writes: “We are focusing on establishing this in bacteria to understand frameshifting and protein folding as a consequence of codon preference. We will then build up our knowledge to potentially study eukaryotic translational control.”

The paper neatly links up with two Nobel Prizes: the 2017 Chemistry prize for cryo-electron microscopy and the 2009 Chemistry prize for ribosome structure, awarded in part to Dunham’s mentor Venki Ramakrishnan. Also, see this 2015 feature from Nature’s Ewen Callaway outlining how cryo-EM is a must have for structural biologists wanting to probe large molecules that are difficult to crystallize.

Construction now underway in the Biochemistry Connector will allow installation of microscopes (worth $6 million) necessary for Dunham and others to do cryo-EM here at Emory, although she advises that it will be several months until they are photo-op ready. For the Structure paper, Dunham collaborated with George Skiniotis at University of Michigan; he recently moved to Stanford. Read more

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Insight into brain + learning via ‘friend of fragile X’ gene

We can learn a lot about somebody from the friends they hang out with. This applies to people and also to genes and proteins. Emory scientists have been investigating a gene that we will call — spoiler alert — “Friend of fragile X.”

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, studied by research teams around the world with drug discovery and clinical trials in mind. It is caused by a disruption of the gene FMR1.

In an independent form of inherited intellectual disability found in a small number of Iranian families, a gene called ZC3H14 is mutated. Two papers from Ken Moberg, PhD, associate professor of cell biology, Anita Corbett, PhD, professor of biology and colleagues show that FMR1 and ZC3H14 are, in effect, friends.

The findings provide new insight into the function of FMR1 as well as ZC3H14; the evidence comes from experiments performed in fruit flies and mice. The most recent paper is in the journal Cell Reports (open access), published this week.

The scientists found that the proteins encoded by FMR1 and ZC3H14 stick together in cells and they hang out in the same places. The two proteins have related functions: they both regulate messenger RNA in neurons, which explains their importance for learning and memory.

The fragile X protein (FMRP) was known to control protein production in response to signals arriving in neurons, but the Cell Reports paper shows that FMRP is also regulating the length of  “tails” attached to messenger RNAs – something scientists did not realize, even after years of studying FMRP and fragile X, Moberg says.

To be sure, FMRP interacts with many proteins and appears to be a critical gatekeeper. Emory geneticist Peng Jin, who has conducted his share of research on this topic, says that “FMRP must be very social and has a lot of friends.” More here.

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Fragile X regulation is a finely tuned machine

A PNAS paper published Monday demonstrates the kinds of insights that can be gleaned from a large scale sequencing project examining the fragile X gene.

Most children (boys, usually) who have fragile X syndrome have a particular mutation. An expanded “triplet repeat” stretch of DNA, which is outside the protein-coding region of the gene, puts the entire gene to sleep.

At Emory, geneticist Steve Warren, cell biologist Gary Bassell and colleagues have been identifying less common changes in the fragile X gene by looking in boys who are developmentally delayed, but don’t have the triplet repeat expansion. The first author of the paper is former postdoc Joshua Suhl, now at Booz Allen Hamilton in Massachusetts.

The authors describe two half-brothers who have the same genetic variant, which changes how production of the FMRP protein is regulated. These examples show that the fragile X gene is so central to how neurons function that several kinds of genetic glitches in it can make this finely tuned machine break down.

“This is a hot area and not much is known about it,” Warren says. Read more

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Fragile X syndrome: building a case for a treatment strategy

New research in mice strengthens a potential strategy for treating fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder.

The results, published April 23 in Cell Reports, suggest that a drug strategy targeting a form of the enzyme PI3 (phosphoinositide-3) kinase could improve learning and behavioral flexibility in people with fragile X syndrome. The PI3 kinase strategy represents an alternative to one based on drugs targeting mGluR5 glutamate receptors, which have had difficulty showing benefits in clinical trials.

Research led by Emory scientists Gary Bassell, PhD and Christina Gross, PhD had previously found that the p110β form of PI3 kinase is overactivated in the brain in a mouse fragile X model, and in blood cells from human patients with fragile X syndrome.

Now they have shown that dialing back PI3 kinase overactivation by using genetic tools can alleviate some of the cognitive deficits and behavioral alterations observed in the mouse model. Drugs that target the p110β form of PI3 kinase are already in clinical trials for cancer.

“Further progress in this direction could lead to a clinical trial in fragile X,” says Bassell, who is chair of Cell Biology at Emory University School of Medicine. “The next step is to test whether this type of drug can be effective in the mouse model and in human patient cells.” Read more

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Regrouping on fragile X drug strategies

Fragile X syndrome has many fascinating aspects:

* the complex inheritance pattern

* its status as the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

*the importance of the RNA-binding protein FMRP as a regulator of synaptic plasticity in neurons

*the potential applicability of drugs developed for fragile X for other forms of ASD

Readers interested in neurodevelopment disorders may want to check out this Nature Reviews Drug Discovery piece, which chews over some setbacks in clinical research on fragile X. Emory researchers have a strong connection with the drug strategies used in the recent clinical trials, but have also been working on alternative approaches. Read more

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Point mutation in fragile X gene reveals separable functions in brain

A new paper in PNAS from geneticist Steve Warren and colleagues illustrates the complexity of the protein disrupted in fragile X syndrome. It touches on how proposed drug therapies that address one aspect of fragile X syndrome may not be able to compensate for all of them. [For a human side of this story, read/listen to this recent NPR piece from Jon Hamilton.]

Fragile X syndrome is the most common single-gene disorder responsible for intellectual disability. Most patients with fragile X syndrome inherit it because a repetitive stretch of DNA, which is outside the protein-coding portion of the fragile X gene, is larger than usual. The expanded number of CGG repeats silences the entire gene.

However, simple point mutations affecting the fragile X protein are possible in humans as well. In the PNAS paper, Warren’s team describes what happens with a particularly revealing mutation, which allowed researchers to dissect fragile X protein’s multifaceted functions. Read more

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