'Master key' microRNA has links to both ASD and schizophrenia

Recent studies of complex brain disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have identified a few "master keys," risk genes that sit at the center of a network of genes important for brain function. Researchers at Emory and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have created mice partially lacking one of those master keys, called MIR-137, and have used them to identify an angle on potential treatments for ASD. The results were published this Read more

Shape-shifting RNA regulates viral sensor

OAS senses double-stranded RNA: the form that viral genetic material often takes. Its regulator is also Read more

Mapping shear stress in coronary arteries can help predict heart attacks

Predicting exactly where and when a future seismic fault will rupture is a scientific challenge – in both geology and Read more

gene editing

Huntington disease roundup

A lot is happening in the Huntington’s disease (HD) field right now. Emory research reports on a pig HD model and on CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing are just part of the wave.

Let’s step back and review the technologies now available to treat this neurodegenerative disease, caused by a gene producing a toxic protein. Antisense approaches, under development for decades and now in clinical trials, shut off the problematic gene. However, this type of treatment would need to be regularly delivered to nervous system tissues. Gene editing — not in the clinic yet — could actually remove the gene from somatic cells in affected individuals.

Emory researchers developed the pig HD model in collaboration with colleagues in Guangzhou, and anticipate it will be a practical way to test treatments such as gene editing. In comparison with mice, delivery to affected nervous system tissues can be better tested in pigs, because their size is closer to that of humans. The pig model of HD, published yesterday in Cell, also more closely matches the symptoms of the human disease. This research was covered by Chinese media organizations.

Also notable:

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Viral vectors ready for delivery

The phrase “viral vector” sounds ominous, like something from a movie about spies and internet intrigue. It refers to a practical delivery system for the gene of your choice. If you are a biomedical researcher and you want to tweak genes in a particular part of the body in an experimental animal, viral vectors are the way to go.

Viral vector-transduced retinal ganglion cell; dendrites and axons labeled with GFP. Courtesy Felix Struebling via Xinping Huang

Emory’s Viral Vector Core was started when eminent neuroscientist Kerry Ressler was at Emory and is now overseen by geneticist Peng Jin. Technical director Xinping Huang and her colleagues can produce high-titer viral vectors, lentivirus and AAV. Discuss with her the best choice. It may depend on the size of the genetic payload you want to deliver and whether you want the gene to integrate into the genome of the target cell.

As gene therapy and CRISPR/Cas9-style gene editing research progresses, we can anticipate demand for services such as those provided by the Viral Vector Core. [Clinical applications are close, but will not be dealt with in the same place!]

Shi-Hua Li’s and Xiao-Jiang Li’s paper on CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in a mouse model of Huntington’s disease, featured by NBC News last year, credits the Viral Vector Core. Read more

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Gene editing reverses Huntington’s in mouse model

Disrupting a problematic gene in brain cells can reverse Huntington’s disease pathology and motor symptoms in a mouse model of the inherited neurological disorder, Emory scientists report.

The researchers used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing, delivered by a viral vector, to snip part of a gene producing toxic protein aggregates in the brains of 9-month old mice. Weeks later, where the vector was applied, aggregated proteins had almost disappeared. In addition, the motor abilities of the mice had improved, although not to the level of control mice.

The results were published June 19, 2017 in Journal of Clinical InvestigationEncouraging Tweet from Scripps MD/author Eric Topol.

The findings open up an avenue for treating Huntington’s as well as other inherited neurodegenerative diseases, although more testing of safety and long-term effects is needed, says senior author Xiao-Jiang Li, MD, PhD, distinguished professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine.

Huntington’s disease is caused by a gene encoding a toxic protein (mutant huntingtin or mHTT) that causes brain cells to die. Symptoms commonly appear in mid-life and include uncontrolled movements, balance problems, mood swings and cognitive decline.

Touted widely for its potential, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing has not been used to treat any neurodegenerative disease in humans. Several concerns need to be addressed before its use, such as effective delivery and the safety of tinkering with DNA in brain cells. A similar approach, but using a different technology (zinc finger nucleases), was reported for Huntington’s disease in 2012.  Read more

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CRISPR gene editing can miss its mark

Yanni Lin, TJ Cradick, Gang Bao and colleagues from Georgia Tech and Emory reported recently in Nucleic Acids Research on how the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system can sometimes miss its mark.

CRISPR/Cas9 has received abundant coverage from science-focused media outlets. Basically, it is a convenient system for cutting DNA in cells in a precise way. This paper shows that the CRISPR/Cas9 system can sometimes cut DNA in places that don’t exactly match the designed target.

Here we show that CRISPR/Cas9 systems can have off-target cleavage when DNA sequences have an extra base or a missing base at various locations compared with the corresponding RNA guide strand…Our results suggest the need to perform comprehensive off-target analysis by considering cleavage due to DNA and sgRNA bulges in addition to base mismatches.

CRISPR/Cas9 could be used to develop therapies for humans for genetic blood diseases such as sickle cell or thalassemia, and this paper does not change that potential. But the authors are cautioning fellow scientists that they need to design their tools carefully and perform quality control. Other investigators have made similar findings.

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Addendum on CRISPR

An excellent example of the use of CRISPR gene editing technology came up at the Emory-Children’s Pediatric Research Center’s Innovation Conference this week.

Marcela Preininger, who is working with cardiomyocyte stem cell specialist Chunhui Xu, described her work (poster abstract 108) on cells derived from a 12 year old patient with an inherited cardiac arrhythmia syndrome: catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia or CPVT. Her team has obtained skin fibroblasts from the patient, and converted those cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, which can then be differentiated into cardiac muscle cells or cardiomyocytes.

Working with TJ Cradick, director of the Protein Engineering Facility at Georgia Tech, Preininger is testing out CRISPR gene editing as a means of correcting the defect in this patient’s cells, outside the body. Cradick says that while easy and efficient, RNA-directed CRISPR can be lower in specificity compared to the protein-directed TALEN technology.

From Preininger’s abstract:

Once the mutation has been corrected at the stem cell level, we will investigate whether the repaired (mutation-free) iPS cells can be differentiated into functional cardiomyocytes with normal Ca2+ handling properties, while closely monitoring the cells for mutagenic events. Pharmacological restoration of the normal myocardial phenotype will also be optimized and explored in our model.

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