‘Genetic doppelgangers:’ Emory research provides insight into two neurological puzzles

An international team led by Emory scientists has gained insight into the pathological mechanisms behind two devastating neurodegenerative diseases. The scientists compared the most common inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD) with a rarer disease called spinocerebellar ataxia type 36 (SCA 36). Both of the diseases are caused by abnormally expanded and strikingly similar DNA repeats. However, ALS progresses quickly, typically killing patients within a year or two, while the disease Read more

Emory launches study on COVID-19 immune responses

Emory University researchers are taking part in a multi-site study across the United States to track the immune responses of people hospitalized with COVID-19 that will help inform how the disease progresses and potentially identify new ways to treat it.  The study is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. The study – called Immunophenotyping Assessment in a COVID-19 Cohort (IMPACC) – launched Friday. Read more

Marcus Lab researchers make key cancer discovery

A new discovery by Emory researchers in certain lung cancer patients could help improve patient outcomes before the cancer metastasizes. The researchers in the renowned Marcus Laboratory identified that highly invasive leader cells have a specific cluster of mutations that are also found in non-small cell lung cancer patients. Leader cells play a dominant role in tumor progression, and the researchers discovered that patients with the mutations experienced poorer survival rates. The findings mark the first Read more

Georgia Research Alliance

Moving flu vaccine research forward

The scientists in the lab of Richard Compans, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory, are hard at work, imagining the unimaginable: A time when patients can self-administer flu vaccines. A time when vaccination does not require exposure to inactive viruses. A time when a universal vaccine could protect from all varieties of influenza: swine, avian, seasonal and strains still emerging.

Richard Compans, PhD (right), with colleague Mark Prausnitz, PhD, from Georgia Tech

But it’s not just hope that motivates them as they work. Emory’s scientists are fighting the clock against another possible future: a time of pandemic and uncontrollable virus mutation. The recent emergence of H1N1 and H5N1, known colloquially as swine flu and avian flu, have added an even greater sense of urgency to their task.

“The H5N1—the virus derived from avian species—has a 60 percent mortality,” says Emory microbiologist Sang-Moo Kang, PhD. Yet that strain of influenza hasn’t resulted in many human deaths, because, so far, avian flu spreads only to humans who are in contact with infected birds.

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Tailoring transplant drugs for children

For adult organ transplant recipients, juggling a lifetime regimen of immunosuppressant drugs is difficult enough, but for children it presents an even greater challenge.  These drugs, which also can have toxic side effects, must strike a delicate balance between preventing organ rejection and protecting from infections.

But children’s immune systems are still “learning” what distinguishes them from the world around them, and children are constantly developing and changing, both physically and emotionally. This puts them at greater risk for complications either through inappropriate medication or failure to take these drugs properly.

A grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), will support new studies at Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to help clinicians tailor therapies specifically for children receiving transplants.  The project will include hiring of additional personnel to undertake these studies.

Allan D. Kirk, MD, PhD, is principal investigator of the project, which is supported by a two-year grant of nearly $1.65 million. Kirk is professor of surgery and pediatrics in Emory University School of Medicine and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. He also is vice chair of research in the Department of Surgery and scientific director of the Emory Transplant Center.

The ARRA-funded project will not only help determine which medications children should take, but also will give them the support to care for their transplanted organs.  The Emory scientists are studying new biological monitoring technologies that can identify unique ways to determine exactly how much medication a child really needs. These studies are being combined with a novel transition care clinic specializing in helping children cope with their illness and assuming responsibility for their care.

“This award indicates exceptional insight by the NIAID into the critical link between a child’s physical well-being and their emotional maturity,” says Kirk. “It will accelerate progress in this vital area of research for a very deserving subset of chronically ill children.”

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Lampreys’ alternative immune system

Lampreys are primitive creatures – basically, tubes with teeth. Their primitive nature makes them a fascinating entry-point for studying the evolution of the immune system.

At Emory, Max Cooper and his colleagues have been studying lampreys’ versions of white blood cells. In a recent Nature paper, they show that lampreys have two kinds of cells that look very much like B and T cells in mammals, birds and fish.

Non-immunologists may shrug at this revelation.  But consider: lampreys have a completely different set of tools for fighting infections. They have proteins in their blood that glob on to invaders, but they don’t look anything like the antibodies found in mammals, birds and fish.

Lampreys in a laboratory tank

Lampreys in a laboratory tank. Courtesy of Masa Hirano.

Similarly, lampreys have cells that look like T Ray Ban outlet cells, in terms of some of the genes that are turned on. However, they don’t have MHC genes, which are important in human transplant medicine because they determine how and when T cells get excited and reject transplanted organs.

Lampreys are thought to be an early offshoot on the evolutionary tree, before sharks and fish, and way before critters that crawl on land. This suggests that the categories (B or T) came first even though the characteristic features of the cells (antibodies/responding to MHC) are different.

“Lampreys have the same types of cells, but they just use different building blocks to put them together,” Cooper says.

Cooper, now a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and a member of Emory’s pathology department, made pioneering studies defining the role the thymus plays in immune development at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s. The thymus is where T cells develop and where they get their name.

He says he is now collaborating with Thomas Boehm in Freiburg, Germany to better understand the evolution of the thymus. Again, lampreys don’t have a thymus, but they may have an area next to their gills where the T-like cells develop.

John Travis at Science has a more extensive discussion of this research.

In a Darwin-anniversary essay, Travis tells the story of how the evolution of the immune system was a centerpiece of the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, when a Pennsylviania school district’s requirement to teach intelligent design was successfully challenged.

Link to Sound Science podcast with Cooper

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