Tracing the start of COVID-19 in GA

At a time when COVID-19 appears to be receding in much of Georgia, it’s worth revisiting the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Emory virologist Anne Piantadosi and colleagues have a paper in Viral Evolution on the earliest SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences detected in Georgia. Analyzing relationships between those virus sequences and samples from other states and countries can give us an idea about where the first COVID-19 infections in Georgia came from. We can draw Read more

Reddit as window into opioid withdrawal strategies

Drug abuse researchers are using the social media site Reddit as a window into the experiences of people living with opioid addiction. Abeed Sarker in Emory's Department of Biomedical Informatics has a paper in Clinical Toxicology focusing on the phenomenon of “precipitated withdrawal,” in collaboration with emergency medicine specialists from Penn, Rutgers and Mt Sinai. Precipitated withdrawal is a more intense form of withdrawal that can occur when someone who was using opioids starts medication-assisted treatment Read more

CROI: HIV cure report and ongoing research

The big news out of CROI (Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections) was a report of a third person being cured of HIV infection, this time using umbilical cord blood for a hematopoetic stem cell transplant. Emory’s Carlos del Rio gave a nice overview of the achievement for NPR this morning. As del Rio explains, the field of HIV cure research took off over the last decade after Timothy Brown, known as “the Berlin patient,” Read more

Gary Bassell

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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Rethinking the role of an aggregation-prone protein in ALS

Anyone studying neuroscience will notice that many neurodegenerative diseases seem to have their own sticky, possibly toxic protein. This protein tends to aggregate, or clump together, in or near the cells affected by the disease.

Picture a glass of milk left in a warm place for several days. Yuck. That is the macro version of the microscopic clumps scientists believe are bothering the brain. For many diseases, there is a debate: are the clumps by themselves toxic to neurons, or a byproduct of something else killing the cells?

Parkinson’s disease has one of the pesky proteins: alpha-synuclein. Alzheimer’s disease has two: beta-amyloid outside cells and tau inside. ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has at least three.*

One of them, TDP-43, is found in protein aggregates in most forms of ALS, both familial and sporadic. Mutations in the TDP-43 gene also account for a small fraction of both familial and sporadic forms of ALS. This suggests that even the normal protein can create problems, but a mutated version can accelerate the disease. In addition, TDP-43 aggregates have been connected with other diseases such as frontotemporal dementia.

Again, it’s not clear whether the aggregates themselves are toxic, or whether it’s more a matter of TDP-43, which appears to regulate RNA processing, is not doing what it’s supposed to in the cell.

TDP-43 protein is mobile within motor neurons.

Emory cell biologists Claudia Fallini and Wilfried Rossoll have been probing the effects of tweaking TDP-43 levels in motor neurons, the cell type vulnerable to degeneration in ALS. They find that motor neurons may be more sensitive to changes in TDP-43 levels than other neurons, which may explain why ALS selectively affects motor neurons.

The results were published in Human Molecular Genetics.

Fallini was able to obtain a movie of fluorescently-tagged TDP-43 “granules” moving around in live motor neurons. Importantly: this is healthy/functional, not aggregated/ toxic protein. The finding that TDP-43 is mobile implies that it has something to do with transporting RNAs around the cell, rather than only functioning in the nucleus.

“Our data point to the hypothesis that TDP-43 increased localization in the cytoplasm is the early trigger of toxicity, followed by protein aggregation,” Fallini says. “Because motor neurons are unique neurons due to their high degree of polarization, we believe they might be more sensitive to alterations in TDP-43 functions in the cytoplasm or the axon.”

In particular, the researchers found that elevated levels of TDP-43 provoke motor neurons to shut down axon outgrowth. They focused on a role for the C-terminal end of TDP-43 in this effect.

“Nobody had looked at TDP-43 specifically in motor neurons before,” she says. “Our paper for the first time shows the localization and axonal transport of TDP-43, and the effects of TDP-43 altered levels on motor neuron morphology.”

*Another ALS protein, SOD1 (superoxide dismutase), apparently forms toxic aggregates when mutated in some cases of familial ALS. At Emory, Terrell Brotherton and Jonathan Glass have been investigating these forms of SOD. The third protein, FUS, has similar properties to TDP-43.

 

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Fragile X protein: one toggle switch, many circuits

The fragile X protein — missing in the most common inherited form of intellectual disability — plays a central role in neurons and how they respond to external signals. Cell biologist Gary Bassell and his colleagues have been examining how the fragile X protein (FMRP) acts as a “toggle switch.”

Gary Bassell, PhD

FMRP controls the activity of several genes by holding on to the RNAs those genes encode. When neurons get an electrochemical signal from the outside, FMRP releases the RNAs, allowing the RNAs to be made into protein, and facilitating changes in the neurons linked to learning and memory.

The Bassell lab’s new paper in Journal of Neuroscience reveals the role of another player in this process. The first author is postdoctoral fellow Vijay Nalavadi.

The researchers show that neurons modify FMRP with ubiquitin, the cellular equivalent of a tag for trash pickup, after receiving an external signal. In general, cells attach ubiquitin to proteins so that the proteins get eaten up by the proteasome, the cellular trash disposal bin. Here, neurons are temporarily getting rid of FMRP, prolonging the effects of the external signal.

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Links between autism and epilepsy

An article in the April 2011 issue of Nature Medicine highlights the mechanistic overlap between autism and epilepsy.

By studying how rare genetic conditions known to coincide with both epilepsy and autism—such as Rett syndrome, fragile X syndrome and tuberous sclerosis—unfold at an early age, neuroscientists are finding that both disorders may alter some of the same neural receptors, signaling molecules and proteins involved in the development of brain cell synapses.

Gary Bassell, PhD

Emory cell biologist Gary Bassell and his colleagues have been taking exactly this approach. Recently they published a paper in Journal of Neuroscience, showing that the protein missing in fragile X syndrome, FMRP, regulates expression of an ion channel linked to epilepsy. This could provide a partial explanation for the link between fragile X syndrome and epilepsy.

The Nature Medicine article also mentions a drug strategy, targeting the mTOR pathway, which Bassell’s group has been exploring with fragile X syndrome.

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New drug strategy against fragile X

Even as clinical trials examining potential treatments for fragile X syndrome gain momentum, Emory scientists have identified a new strategy for treating the neurodevelopmental disorder.

In a paper recently published in Journal of Neuroscience, a team led by cell biologist Gary Bassell shows that PI3 kinase inhibitors could restore normal appearance and levels of protein production at the synapses of hippocampal neurons from fragile X model mice. The next steps, studies in animals, are underway.

“This is an important first step toward having a new therapeutic strategy for fragile X syndrome that treats the underlying molecular defect, and it may be more broadly applicable to other forms of autism,” he says.

A recent Nature Biotechnology article describes pharmaceutical approaches to autism and fragile X.

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Mapping mRNAs in the brain

If the brain acts like a computer, which of the brain’s physical features store the information? Flashes of electricity may keep memories and sensations alive for the moment, but what plays the role that hard drives and CDs do for computers?

A simple answer could be: genes turning on and off, and eventually, neurons growing and changing their shapes. But it gets more complicated pretty quickly. Genes can be regulated at several levels:

  • at the level of transcription — whether messenger RNA gets made from a stretch of DNA in the cell’s nucleus
  • at the level of translation — whether the messenger RNA is allowed to make a protein
  • at the level of RNA localization — where the mRNAs travel within the cell

Each neuron has only two copies of a given gene but will have many dendrites that can have more or less RNA in them. That means the last two modes of regulation offer neurons much more capacity for storing information.

Gary Bassell, a cell biologist at Emory, and his colleagues have been exploring how RNA regulation works in neurons. They have developed special tools for mapping RNA, and especially, microRNA — a form of RNA that regulates other RNAs.

In the dendrites of neurons, FMRP seems to control where RNAs end up

In the dendrites of neurons, FMRP seems to control where RNAs end up

Fragile X mental retardation protein (FMRP), linked to the most common inherited form of mental retardation, appears to orchestrate RNA traffic in neurons. Bassell and pharmacologist Yue Feng recently received a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Development to study FMRP’s regulation of RNA in greater detail. The grant was one of several at Emory funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s support for the NIH.

In the video interview above, Bassell explains his work on microRNAs in neurons. Below is a microscope image, provided by Bassell, showing the pattern of FMRP’s localization in neurons.

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