Unlocking a liver receptor puzzle

Biochemist Eric Ortlund and graduate student Suzanne Mays determined how potential diabetes drugs interact with their target, the protein Read more

Insane in the membrane - inflamed in the brain

Green and red fluorescent cells allow the visualization of brain inflammation in status Read more

Flow mediated dilation

Demonstration of flow-mediated dilation, a test of endothelial function. Impaired endothelial function is an early stage in the process of Read more

genetics

Deep dive into NMDA receptor variation

The study of human genetics has often focused on mutations that cause disease. When it comes to genetic variations in healthy people, scientists knew they were out there, but didn’t have a full picture of their extent. That is changing with the emergence of resources such as the Exome Aggregation Consortium or ExAC, which combines sequences for the protein-coding parts of the genome from more than 60,000 people into a database that continues to expand.

ajhg-fig-2-092016

Rare mutations in the NMDA receptor genes cause epilepsy (GRIN2A) or intellectual disability (GRIN2B). Shown in blue are agonist binding domains of the receptors, where several disease-causing mutations can be found.

At Emory, the labs of Stephen Traynelis and Hongjie Yuan have published an analysis of ExAC data, focusing on the genes encoding two NMDA receptor subunits, GRIN2A and GRIN2B. These receptors are central to signaling between brain cells, and rare mutations in the corresponding genes cause epilepsy (GRIN2A) or intellectual disability (GRIN2B). GRIN2B mutations have also been linked with autism spectrum disorder.

steveandhongjie

Steve Traynelis and Hongjie Yuan

The new paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics makes a deep dive into ExAC data to explore the link between normal variation in the healthy population and regions of the proteins that harbor disease-causing mutations.

In addition, the paper provides a detailed look at how 25 mutations that were identified in individuals with neurologic disease actually affect the receptors. For some patients, this insight could potentially guide anticonvulsant treatment with a repurposed Alzheimer’s medication. Also included are three new mutations from patients identified by whole exome sequencing, one in GRIN2A and two in GRIN2B.

“This is one of the first analyses like this, where we’re mapping the spectrum of variation in a gene onto the structure of the corresponding protein,” says Traynelis, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine. “We’re able to see that the disease mutations cluster where variation among the healthy population disappears.”

Heat map of agonist binding domain for GRIN2A.

Heat map of agonist binding domain for GRIN2A. From Swanger et al AJHG (2016).

Postdoctoral fellow Sharon Swanger, PhD is first author of the paper, and Yuan, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology, is co-senior author.

It’s not always obvious, looking at the sequence of a given mutation, how it’s going to affect NMDA receptor function. Only introducing the altered gene into cells and studying protein function in the lab provides that information, Traynelis says.

NMDA receptors are complicated machines: mutations can affect how well they bind their ligands (glutamate and glycine), how they open and shut, or how they are processed onto the cell surface. On top of that complexity, mutations that make the receptors either stronger or weaker can both lead the brain into difficulty; within each gene, both types of mutation are associated with similar disorders. With some GRIN2A mutations, the functional changes identified in the lab were quite strong, but the effect on the brain was less dramatic (mild intellectual disability or speech disorder), suggesting that other genetic factors contribute to outcomes.

Clinical relevance

Traynelis and Yuan previously collaborated with the NIH’s Undiagnosed Disease Program to show that the Alzheimer’s medication memantine can be repurposed as an anticonvulsant, for a child with intractable epilepsy coming from a mutation in the GRIN2A gene. (Nature Communications, Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology)

Memantine is an NMDA receptor antagonist, aimed at counteracting the overactivation of the receptor caused by the mutation. Memantine has also been used to treat children with epilepsy associated with mutations in the related GRIN2D gene. However, memantine doesn’t work on all activating mutations, and could have effects on the unmutated NMDA receptors in the brain as well. Traynelis reports that his clinical colleagues are developing guidelines for physicians on the use of memantine for children with GRIN gene mutations.

This study and related investigations were supported by funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R01HD082373), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (R24NS092989), the Atlanta Clinical & Translational Science Institute (UL1TR000454), and CURE Epilepsy: Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy.

 

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

A glimpse into the genetics of positive emotions

 

Happiness can be elusive, both in personal life and as a scientific concept. That’s why this paper, recently published in Molecular Psychiatry, seemed so striking.

A genome-wide association study of positive emotion identifies a genetic variant and a role for microRNAs.” Translation: a glimpse into the genetics of positive emotions.

Editorial note: Although the research team here is careful and confirms the findings in independent groups and in brain imaging and fear discrimination experiments, this is a preliminary result. More needs to be explored about how these genetic variants and others affect positive emotions.

“With relatively few studies on genetic underpinnings of positive emotions, we face the challenges of a nascent research area,” the authors write.

Perhaps ironically, the finding comes out of the Grady Trauma Project, a study of inner-city residents exposed to high rates of abuse and violence, aimed at understanding mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability in depression and PTSD.

“Resilience is a multidimensional phenomenon, and we were looking at just one aspect of it,” says first author Aliza Wingo. She worked with Kerry Ressler , now at Harvard, and Tanja Jovanovic and other members of the Grady Trauma Project team.

“Positive affect” is what the team was measuring, through responses on questionnaires. And the questions are asking for the extent that respondents feel a particular positive emotion in general, rather than that day or that week. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Manipulating mouse genes to order, CRISPR or old-school

Just a follow-up to last week’s announcement from the Emory Transgenic Mouse and Gene Targeting core that they are offering CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing for mice. Using CRISPR/Cas9 to produce genetically altered mice is a

Knockout_mice

Gene targeting – the 20th century way

substantial advance over the old way of doing knockouts and other manipulations (which itself won a Nobel Prize in 2007), mainly because it’s faster and easier.

To appreciate the difference, consider that the old way involves introducing DNA into mouse embryonic stem cells, and then selecting for the rare cells that take up and incorporate the DNA in the right way. Then the ES cells have to be injected into a blastocyst, followed by mouse breeding to “go germline.”

With CRISPR/Cas9, it’s possible to inject pieces of RNA that target the desired genetic changes, straight into a one-cell stage mouse embryo. Not every embryo has all the right changes, but the frequency is high enough to inject and screen. As this review explains, it’s possible to introduce mutations into three genes at once and get mice quickly, rather than make each one separately and then breed the mice together, which can take many months.

Also, because of the need for drug selection, the targeting construct in old-school gene targeting has to be a blunt instrument. That can make it hard to make subtle changes to a gene — like introduce point mutations corresponding to natural variations linked with human disease — without taking a sledgehammer to the entire gene locus. CRISPR/Cas9 takes care of that problem.

Despite the advantages of this technology, three things to keep in mind:

*Many genetically altered mice are already available “off the shelf” as part of the International Knockout Mouse/Mouse Phenotyping Consortium.

*Emory’s Mouse Core has been working with the company Ingenious Gene Targeting, and has been out-sourcing some of the tedious aspects of old-school gene targeting in mice to Ingenious, starting last year. Technicians there can generate a dazzling array of conditional knockouts. If you want your favorite gene to flip around and produce a fluorescent protein when you give the mice an antibiotic, but only in some cells — Ingenious can do that. Old school is actually still the way to go for fancy stuff like this.

*Jackson Labs in Maine also works with Emory, offering similar services, and offers a guarantee. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Uncategorized Leave a comment

Grady Trauma Project — DICER link to PTSD plus depression

Violence and trauma are certainly not gifts, but scientifically, the Grady Trauma Project keeps on giving, even after co-director Kerry Ressler’s 2015 move to Massachusetts. Research at Emory on the neurobiology of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continues. This Nature Communications paper, published in December with VA-based psychiatrist Aliza Wingo as lead author, is an example.

Three interesting things about this paper:

  1. The focus on PTSD co-occurring with depression. As the authors note, several studies looking at traumatized individuals found PTSD and depression together more often than they were present separately. This was true of Atlanta inner city residents in the Grady Trauma Project, veterans and survivors of the 2001 World Trade Center attack.
  2. DICER: the gene whose activity is turned down in blood samples from people with PTSD plus depression. Its name evokes one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, Atropos, who cuts the thread of life. DICER is at the center of a cellular network of regulation, because it is part of the machinery that generates regulatory micro-RNAs.
  3. The findings recapitulate work in mouse models of stress and its effects on the brain, with a connection to the many-tentacled Wnt signaling/adhesion protein beta-catenin.

Some past posts on the Grady Trauma Project’s scientific fruits follow. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Metagenomics explainer

A term we heard a bunch at the Emory Microbiome Symposium in November was “metagenomics”. Time for an explainer, with some help from Emory geneticist Tim Read.

Nature Reviews Microbiology defines metagenomics as “genomic analysis of microbial DNA that is extracted directly from communities in environmental samples.”

This technology — genomics on a huge scale — enables a survey of the different microorganisms present in a specific environment, such as water or soil, to be carried out. Metagenomics is also emerging as a tool for clinical diagnosis of infectious diseases.

Read notes that the term specifically refers to “shotgun” sequencing of environmental DNA.

“The shotgun approach is to randomly sample small pieces of the DNA in the tube, no matter which organism they came from,” he says. “The output is a mélange of different genes from bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants and humans.  The data is fascinating but the analysis is daunting.” Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Uncategorized 1 Comment

Supreme decision on DNA patents

In these days of political polarization, how often does the United States Supreme Court make a unanimous decision? When the case has to do with human genes and their patentability!

The case concerned patents held by Utah firm Myriad Genetics on the BRCA1 and 2 genes. Mutations in those genes confer an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The patents in dispute claimed the genes themselves rather than just the technology for reading them.

Cecelia Bellcross, director of Emory’s genetics counseling program and an expert on breast cancer genetics counseling, reports that “in general, the clinical genetics community is jumping up and down, as are a lot of genetics lab directors and definitely patient advocacy groups.”

Myriad’s BRCA tests cost more than $3,000. Several competing firms announced that they would offer tests for the BRCA1 and 2 mutations at significantly lower prices.

Read more

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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.

Read more

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The challenges of graduate school

Biochemist Paul Doetsch’s recent appearance in a Science magazine feature on laboratory leadership led to a conversation with him about the challenges of graduate school.

He emphasized that scientific research is a team sport, and brilliance on the part of the lab head may not yield fruit without a productive relationship with the people in the lab. Doetsch suggested talking with Lydia Morris, a graduate student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology graduate program. Morris has been working in Doetsch’s lab for several years and is about to complete her degree. She has been examining the in vivo distribution of DNA repair proteins.

In this video, Morris and Doetsch talk about the differences between turn-the-crank and blue-sky projects, and the importance of backup projects, communications, high expectations and perseverance.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer Leave a comment

The face behind a case

Last week Emory posted a news item about a case report published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. The paper described how geneticists at Emory, in cooperation with Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute in San Diego, used “whole exome sequencing” — a sort of executive summary scan of the genome — to find the cause of a metabolic disease in a young boy.

The case was an illustration of the trend of whole exome sequencing, which is starting to enter clinical practice as a diagnostic technology. A photo of the patient, courtesy of his parents and Sanford Burnham, is a powerful reminder that within every case report, there’s a real person’s history.

Courtesy of Heather Buschman

“Over the years, we’ve come to know many families and their kids with glycosylation disorders. Here we can tell them their boy is a true ‘trail-blazer’ for this new disease,” says Hudson Freeze, director of the Genetic Disease program at Sanford Burnham. “Their smiles—that’s our bonus checks.”

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Genetic alteration opens door to targeted treatment of rare tumor

A cross section of an epithelioid hemangioendothelioma

Emory pathologist Sharon Weiss, MD, was the first to describe an extraordinarily rare tumor known as an epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (EHE). Thirty years later, researchers have identified a genetic alteration linked to this odd vascular tumor.

It’s hoped this newfound information will lead to a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the development of this tumor and hence development of a targeted treatment. None yet is available. However, these findings already have been used to develop a new diagnostic test for this blood vessel disease.

The research, published in a recent issue of Science Translational Medicine, was done in collaboration with Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Institute and led by Brian Rubin, MD, PhD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Institute and Lerner Research Institute.

The genetic alteration formerly in question involves a translocation between chromosomes 1 and 3, where chromosomes 1 and 3 exchange DNA fragments that are transposed onto opposite chromosomes. The result: the swapped DNA encodes a unique, fused gene that contains components from each chromosome. Because genes are translated into proteins, the result of this unique gene is a correspondingly unique protein, one thought to cause cancer.

Epithelioid hemangioendotheliomas comprise less than one percent of all cancers. Roughly 100 new cases are diagnosed in the United State each year. EHE are eccentric in their epidemiology, structure and aggressiveness. Slow to metastasize, they tend to occur in both young men and women when soft tissue is involved but occur mostly in women when the liver and lungs are affected.

However, it’s their peculiar structure that has so far made targeted treatment problematic, especially in the liver and lungs. “Instead of being one mass as you might expect with liver cancer, the patient with EHE often presents with little nodules throughout the liver,” says Weiss.

“The reason this occurs is that the growth starts in the liver’s portal vein, grows along its length, and then tracks out through the vessels. The growths blister out from the vessel creating these little nodules. Epithelioid hemangioendothelioma don’t possess the classic features of vascular tumors. In fact, EHE may have so many sites of involvement that the cancer can’t be cured, short of transplantation.”

Using EHE tissue samples gleaned from Weiss’s vast library, Rubin developed a genetic probe to detect the distinct chromosomal translocations in the tumor. The probe now serves as a powerful diagnostic tool of EHE and opens the door to understanding these tumors’ mechanisms.

“Once you understand the mechanism behind it, you can start trying to target those pathways in a therapeutic way,” says Weiss.

Posted on by Robin Tricoles in Cancer 1 Comment