March for Science ATL: photos

Emory scientists and supporters of science were out in substantial numbers Saturday at the March for Science Atlanta in Candler Park. March organizers, many of whom came from the Emory research community, say they want to continue their advocacy momentum and community-building after the event’s Read more

How race + TBI experience affect views of informed consent

The upcoming HBO movie of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds us that biomedical research has a complex legacy, when it comes to informed consent and people of color. A paper from Emory investigators touches on related issues important for conduct of clinical research Read more

Fecal transplant replants microbial garden

Emory physicians explain how FMT (fecal microbiota transplant) restores microbial balance when someone’s internal garden has been Read more

neurodegenerative disease

Provocative prions may protect yeast cells from stress

Prions have a notorious reputation. They cause neurodegenerative disease, namely mad cow/Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. And the way these protein particles propagate – getting other proteins to join the pile – can seem insidious.

Yet prion formation could represent a protective response to stress, research from Emory University School of Medicine and Georgia Tech suggests.

A yeast protein called Lsb2, which can trigger prion formation by other proteins, actually forms a “metastable” prion itself in response to elevated temperatures, the scientists report.

The results were published this week in Cell Reports.

Higher temperatures cause proteins to unfold; this is a major stress for yeast cells as well as animal cells, and triggers a “heat shock” response. Prion formation could be an attempt by cells to impose order upon an otherwise chaotic jumble of misfolded proteins, the scientists propose.

A glowing red clump can be detected in yeast cells containing a Lsb2 prion (left), because Lsb2 is hooked up to a red fluorescent protein. In other cells lacking prion activity (right), the Lsb2 fusion protein is diffuse.

“What we found suggests that Lsb2 could be the regulator of a broader prion-forming response to stress,” says Keith Wilkinson, PhD, professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine.

The scientists call the Lsb2 prion metastable because it is maintained in a fraction of cells after they return to normal conditions but is lost in other cells. Lsb2 is a short-lived, unstable protein, and mutations that keep it around longer increase the stability of the prions.

The Cell Reports paper was the result of collaboration between Wilkinson, Emory colleague Tatiana Chernova, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry, and the laboratory of Yury Chernoff, PhD in Georgia Tech’s School of Biological Sciences.

“It’s fascinating that stress treatment may trigger a cascade of prion-like changes, and that the molecular memory of that stress can persist for a number of cell generations in a prion-like form,” Chernoff says.”Our further work is going to check if other proteins can respond to environmental stresses in a manner similar to Lsb2.” Read more

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Breath test for Parkinson’s?

Using one to see into the other. Left: canister for breath sample. Right: basal ganglia, a region of the brain usually affected by Parkinson’s.

Scientists think that it may be possible to detect signs of Parkinson’s disease through a breath test.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is supporting a clinical study at Emory that will probe this idea. Neuro-immunologist Malu Tansey is working with Hygieia, a Georgia-based company that has developed technology for analyzing volatile organic compounds present in exhaled air.

From the MJFF’s blog:

By collecting and analyzing breath samples in 100 people (50 non-smoking early-stage PD patients and 50 age and sex-matched controls), the researchers hope to define a unique inflammatory PD-specific breath fingerprint that could be used to predict and monitor disease in combination with blood analyses of conventional or newly discovered biomarkers.

“We hypothesize that breath volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) fingerprinting can enable sensitive and specific measures of ongoing inflammation and other processes implicated in the development and/or progression of PD, and thus could represent an early detection tool,” Tansey says.

If results indicate moving forward, Tansey says it will be important to compare the breath sample method against blood tests for inflammatory markers. Other reports on the breath test approach for Parkinson’s have been encouraging. Read more

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HD monkeys display full spectrum of symptoms seen in humans

Transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys display a full spectrum of symptoms resembling the human disease, ranging from motor problems and neurodegeneration to emotional dysregulation and immune system changes, scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University report.

The results, published online in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, strengthen the case that transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys could be used to evaluate emerging treatments (such as this) before launching human clinical trials.

“Identifying emotional and immune symptoms in the HD monkeys, along with previous studies demonstrating their cognitive deficits and fine motor problems, suggest the HD monkey model embodies the full array of symptoms similar to human patients with the disease,” says Yerkes research associate Jessica Raper, PhD, lead author of the paper. Read more

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A sweet brain preserver: trehalose

It’s sweet, it’s safe, and it looks like it could save neurons. What is it? Trehalose.

Trehalose molecule

Trehalose is a natural sugar.

This natural sugar is used in the food industry as a preservative and flavor enhancer (it’s in Taco Bell’s meat filling). And curiously, medical researchers keep running into trehalose when they’re looking for ways to fight neurodegenerative diseases.

A recent example from Emory’s Department of Pharmacology: Chris Holler, Thomas Kukar and colleagues were looking for drugs that might boost human cells’ production of progranulin (PGRN), a growth factor that keeps neurons healthy. Mutations in the progranulin gene are a common cause of frontotemporal dementia.

The Emory scientists discovered two leads: a class of compounds called mTOR inhibitors — the transplant drug rapamycin is one — and trehalose. The team decided to concentrate on trehalose because it increased PGRN levels in neuronal and non-neuronal cell types, unlike the mTOR inhibitors. Their results were published at the end of June in Molecular Neurodegeneration.

The team confirmed their findings by examining the effects of trehalose on cells derived from patients with progranulin mutations. This paper is the first to include results from Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, which was established in 2012 to facilitate this type of “disease in a dish” approach. Cell biologists Charles Easley, Wilfried Rossoll and Gary Bassell from the LTCB, and neurologists Chad Hales and William Hu from the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease are co-authors.

Read more

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Insight into broken record genetic diseases

Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl records will recall how a scratch can cause the same sounds to repeat many times. A similar type of genetic glitch causes neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and several forms of spinocerebellar ataxia.

Huntington’s and the spinocerebellar ataxias are known as “polyglutamine” diseases. In each, the affected gene has a stretch where the same three DNA letters are repeated several times — more than usual. As a result, the protein encoded by the affected gene has a patch, where only the building block glutamine can be found, disrupting that protein’s usual functions in the body.

Geneticist Xiao-Jiang Li and colleagues recently published a paper in Cell Reports that may explain why more aggressive juvenile-onset forms of polyglutamine diseases have different symptoms and pathology. Read more

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Do Alzheimer’s proteins share properties with prions?

If you’ve come anywhere near Alzheimer’s research, you’ve come across the “amyloid hypothesis” or “amyloid cascade hypothesis.”

This is the proposal that deposition of amyloid-beta, a major protein ingredient of the plaques that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, is a central event in the pathology of the disease. Lots of supporting evidence exists, but several therapies that target beta-amyloid, such as antibodies, have failed in large clinical trials.

Jucker_Walker_May_2014

Lary Walker and Matthias Jucker in Tübingen, 2014

In a recent Nature News article, Boer Deng highlights an emerging idea in the Alzheimer’s field that may partly explain why: not all forms of aggregated amyloid-beta are the same. Moreover, some “strains” of amyloid-beta may resemble spooky prions in their ability to spread within the brain, even if they can’t infect other people (important!).

Prions are the “infectious proteins” behind diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. They fold into a particular structure, aggregate and then propagate by attracting more proteins into that structure.

Lary Walker at Yerkes National Primate Research Center has been a key proponent of this provocative idea as it applies to Alzheimer’s. To conduct key experiments supporting the prion-like properties of amyloid-beta, Walker has been collaborating with Matthias Jucker in Tübingen, Germany and spent four months there on a sabbatical last year. Their paper, describing how aggregated amyloid-beta is “seeded” and spreads through the brain in mice, was recently published in Brain Pathology.
Read more

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Parkinson’s drug discovery: visit the dopamine container store

In a recent PNAS paper, Gary Miller and colleagues at Rollins School of Public Health outline a potential therapeutic approach to Parkinson’s disease that I’m going to call the Container Store approach.

If you have a mess in your kitchen or basement workshop, you might need more or better containers to hold your tools. Analogously, problems in Parkinson’s disease can be traced back to a lack of effective containers for the brain communication chemical dopamine.

Read more

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Aging brains still need “chaperone” proteins

The word “chaperone” refers to an adult who keeps teenagers from acting up at a dance or overnight trip. It also describes a type of protein that can guard the brain against its own troublemakers: misfolded proteins that are involved in several neurodegenerative diseases.

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine led by Shihua Li, MD, and Xiao-Jiang Li, MD, PhD have demonstrated that as animals age, their brains are more vulnerable to misfolded proteins, partly because of a decline in chaperone activity.

The researchers were studying a model of spinocerebellar ataxia, but the findings have implications for understanding other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Ray Ban outlet Huntington’s. They also identified targets for potential therapies: bolstering levels of either a particular chaperone or a growth factor in brain cells can protect against the toxic effects of misfolded proteins.

The results were published recently in the journal Neuron. 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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Neuroinflammation: a different way to look at Parkinson’s disease

Emory physiologist Malu Tansey and her colleagues are using recent insights into the role of inflammation in Parkinson’s disease to envision new treatments. One possible form this treatment strategy could take would be surprisingly simple, and comparable to medications that are approved for rheumatoid arthritis.

Malu Tansey, PhD

Understanding the role of inflammation in Parkinson’s requires a shift in focus. Many Parkinson’s researchers understandably emphasize the neurons that make the neurotransmitter dopamine. They’re the cells that are dying or already lost as the disease progresses, leading to tremors, motor difficulties and a variety of other symptoms.

But thinking about the role of inflammation in Parkinson’s means getting familiar with microglia, the immune system’s field reps within the brain. At first, it was thought that the profusion of microglia in the brains of Parkinson’s patients was just a side effect of neurodegeneration. The neurons die, and the microglia come in to try to clean up the debris.

Now it seems like microglia and inflammation might be one of the main events, if not the initiating event.

“Something about the neurons’ metabolic state, whether it’s toxins, oxidative stress, unfolded proteins, or a combination, makes them more sensitive. But inflammation, sustained by the presence of microglia, is what sends them over the edge,” Tansey says.

She says that several recent studies have led to renewed attention to this area:

  1. In vivo PET imaging using a probe for microglia has allowed scientists to see inflammation starting early in the progression of Parkinson’s (see figure below)
  2. Epidemiology studies show that taking ibuprofen regularly is linked to lower incidence of Parkinson’s
  3. Experiments with animal models of genetic susceptibility demonstrate that inflammatory agents like endotoxin can accelerate neurodegeneration
  4. Genomics screens have identified HLA-DR, an immune system gene, as a susceptibility marker for Parkinson’s (Emory’s Stewart Factor was a co-author on this paper)

Popping a few ibuprofen pills everyday for prevention and possibly damaging the stomach along the way is probably not going to work well, Tansey says. It should be possible to identify a more selective way to inhibit microglia, which may be able to inhibit disease progression after it has started.

Activated microglia in the midbrain and striatum of a Parkinson's patient

Targeting TNF (tumor necrosis factor), an important inflammatory signaling molecule, may be one way to go. Anti-TNF agents are already used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. This January, Tansey and her co-workers published a paper showing that a gene therapy approach using decoy TNF can reduce neuronal loss in a rat model of Parkinson’s. More recently, her lab has also shown that targeting the gene RGS10 is another way to inhibit microglia and reduce neurodegeneration in the same models.

It is important to note that in the rat studies, they do surgery and put the gene therapy viral vector straight into the brain. She says it might possible to perform peripheral gene therapy with the microglia, or even anti-TNF medical therapy. In terms of mechanism, decoy (technically, dominant negative) TNF is more selective and may avoid the side effects, such as opportunistic infections, of existing anti-TNF agents.

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