The time Anna stayed up all night

Almost precisely a decade ago, a young Atlanta lawyer named Anna was returning to work, after being treated for an extraordinary sleep disorder. Her story has been told here at Emory and by national media outlets. Fast forward a decade to Idiopathic Hypersomnia Awareness Week 2018 (September 3-9), organized by Hypersomnolence Australia. What this post deals with is essentially the correction of a date at the tail end of Anna’s story, but one with long-term implications Read more

Mini-monsters of cardiac regeneration

Jinhu Wang’s lab is not producing giant monsters. They are making fish with fluorescent hearts. Lots of cool Read more

Why is it so hard to do good science?

Last week, Lab Land put out a Twitter poll, touching on the cognitive distortions that make it difficult to do high-quality science. Lots of people (almost 50) responded! Thank you! We had to be vague about where all this came from, because it was before the publication of the underlying research paper. Ray Dingledine, in Emory’s Department of Pharmacology, asked us to do the Twitter poll first, to see what answers people would give. Dingledine’s Read more

NIH

A twist on epigenetic therapy vs cancer

Epigenetic therapies against cancer have attracted considerable attention in recent years. But many of the drugs currently being studied as epigenetic anticancer therapies may have indiscriminate effects. A recent paper in Cancer Research from brain cancer researcher Erwin Van Meir’s laboratory highlights a different type of target within cancer cells that may be more selective. Postdoctoral fellow Dan Zhu is the first author of the paper.

Erwin Van Meir, PhD

The basic idea for epigenetic therapy is to focus on how cancer cells’ DNA is wrapped instead of the mutations in the DNA. Cancer cells often have aberrant patterns of methylation or chromatin modifications. Methylation is a punctuation-like modification of DNA that usually shuts genes off, and chromatin is the term describing DNA when it is clothed by proteins such as histones, a form of packaging that determines whether a gene is on or off.

In contrast to mutations that are hard-wired in the DNA, changes in cancer cells’ methylation or chromatin may be reversible with certain drug treatments. But a puzzle remains: if a drug wipes away methylation indiscriminately, that might turn on an oncogene just as much as it might restore a tumor suppressor gene.

The ability of an inhibitor of methylation to treat cancer may depend on cell type and context, explains chromatin/methylation expert and co-author Paula Vertino. She points out that one well-known methylation inhibitor, azacytidine (Vidaza), is a standard treatment for myelodysplastic syndrome, but the strategy of blanket-inhibition of methylation can’t be expected to work for all cancers. A similar challenge exists for agents that target histone acetylation in a global fashion.

Epigenetic therapies seek to modify how DNA is packaged in the cell.

Van Meir’s laboratory has been studying a tumor suppressor protein called BAI1 (brain angiogenesis inhibitor 1), which prevents tumor and blood vessel growth. BAI1 is produced by brain cells naturally, but is often silenced epigenetically in glioblastoma cells. His team found that azacytidine de-represses the BAI1 gene.

Methylation won’t turn a gene off without the help of a set of proteins that bind preferentially to methylated DNA. These proteins are what recognize the methylation state of a given gene and recruit repressive chromatin. Zhu and colleagues in Van Meir’s group found that one particular methyl-binding protein, MBD2, is overproduced in glioblastoma and is enriched on the BAI1 gene.

“Taken together, our results suggest that MBD2 overexpression during gliomagenesis may drive tumor growth by suppressing the anti-angiogenic activity of a key tumor suppressor. These findings have therapeutic implications since inhibiting MBD2 could offer a strategy to reactivate BAI1 and suppress glioma pathobiology,” the authors write.

By itself, MBD2 appears to be dispensable, since mice seem to be able to develop and survive without it. Not having it even seems to push back against tumor formation in the intestine, for example. Targeting MBD2 may represent an alternative way to steer away from cancer cells’ altered state.

Van Meir cautions: “We need to have a better understanding of all the genes that are turned on or off by silencing MBD2 in a given cancer before we can envision to use this approach for therapy.”

Vertino and Steven Hunter, both at Emory, are co-authors on the paper. The work was supported by grants from the NIH and the Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation and the Emory University Research Council.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer 1 Comment

Blood biomarkers may help predict risk in stroke and TBI


Biomarkers circulating in the bloodstream may serve as a predictive window for recurrent stroke risk and also help doctors accurately assess what is happening in the brains of patients with acute traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Michael Frankel, MD

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine, led by principal investigator Michael Frankel, MD, Emory professor of neurology and director of Grady Memorial Hospital’s Marcus Stroke & Neuroscience Center, are studying biomarkers as part of two ancillary studies of blood samples using two grants from the National Institutes of Health.

In the $1.47 million, four-year grant called “Biomarkers of Ischemic Outcomes in Intracranial Stenosis” (BIOSIS), Emory researchers are analyzing blood samples from 451 patients from around the country who were enrolled in a study known as SAMMPRIS (Stenting and Aggressive Medical Management for Preventing Recurrent stroke in Intracranial Stenosis), the first randomized, multicenter clinical trial designed to test whether stenting intracranial arteries would prevent recurrent stroke.

Researchers in the SAMMPRIS study recently published their results in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that medical management was more effective than stenting in preventing recurrent strokes in these patients. Frankel’s BIOSIS research team is using blood samples from these same patients to continue learning more about the molecular biology of stroke to predict risk of a stroke occurring in the future.

“Our goal is to learn more about stroke by studying proteins and cells in the blood that reflect the severity of disease in arteries that leads to stroke. If we can test blood samples for proteins and cells that put patients at high risk for stroke, we can better tailor treatment for those patients,” says Frankel.

Patients with narrowed brain arteries, known as intracranial stenosis, have a particularly high risk of disease leading to stroke. At least one in four of the 795,000 Americans who have a stroke each year will have another stroke within their lifetime. Within five years of a first stroke, the risk for another stroke can increase more than 40 percent. Recurrent strokes often have a higher rate of death and disability because parts of the brain already injured by the original stroke may not be as resilient.

The other study, “Biomarkers of Injury and Outcome in ProTECT III” (BIO-ProTECT)” is a $2.6 million, five-year NIH grant in which Frankel’s team will use blood to determine what is happening in the brain of patients with acute TBI.  The blood samples are from patients enrolled in the multicenter clinical trial ProTECT III (Progesterone for Traumatic brain injury, Experimental Clinical Treatment), led by Emory Emergency Medicine Professor, David Wright, MD, to assesses the use of progesterone to treat TBI in 1,140 patients at 17 centers nationwide.

In the BIO-ProTECT study, Emory is collaborating with the Medical University of South Carolina, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Michigan and Banyan Biomarkers.

TBI is the leading cause of death and disability among young adults in the US and worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1.4 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury each year, leading to 275,000 hospitalizations, 80,000 disabilities, and 52,000 deaths.

Acute TBI leads to a cascade of cellular events set in motion by the initial injury that ultimately lead to cerebral edema (swelling of the brain), cellular disruption and sometimes death. Tissue breakdown leads to the release of proteins into the bloodstream. These proteins may serve as useful biomarkers of the severity of the injury and perhaps provide useful information about response to treatment.

Using the large patient group in the ProTECT III trial, the researchers hope to validate promising TBI biomarkers as predictors of clinical outcome and also evaluate the relationship between progesterone treatment, biomarker levels and outcome.

“If we can better determine the amount of brain injury with blood samples, we can use blood to help doctors better assess prognosis for recovery, and, hopefully whether a patient will respond to treatment with progesterone,” says Frankel.

Posted on by Juliette Merchant in Neuro Leave a comment

Med into grad program bridges gap between basic and clinical research

Former National Institutes of Health director Elias Zerhouni created a vivid label for a persistent problem. He noted there was a widening gap between basic and clinical research. The “valley of death” describes the gap between basic research, where the majority of NIH funding is directed and many insights into fundamental biology are gained, and patients who need these discoveries translated to the bedside and into the community in order to benefit human health. Thus, a chasm has opened up between biomedical researchers and the patients who would benefit from their discoveries.

Translational research seeks to move ideas from the laboratory into clinical practice

Translational research seeks to move ideas from the laboratory into clinical practice in order to improve human health.

A new certificate program in translational research is designed to empower PhD graduate students to bridge that gap. Participants (PhD graduate students) from Emory, Georgia Tech and Morehouse School of Medicine can take courses in epidemiology, biostatistics, bioethics, designing clinical trials and grant writing, and will have rotations with clinicians and clinical interaction network sites where clinical research studies are carried out to get a better sense of the impact and potential benefit of the research they are conducting.

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Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Uncategorized 2 Comments

Study: Regular aerobic exercise and prevention of drug abuse relapse

Exercise provides health benefits

Researchers at Emory University and the University of Georgia have received funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the neurobiological mechanisms for how regular aerobic exercise may prevent drug abuse relapse. The grant is for $1.9 million over the next five years.

David Weinshenker, PhD, associate professor of human genetics, Emory School of Medicine, is a co-principal investigator on the project.

David Weinshenker, PhD

“This research will provide new insight into how regular exercise may attenuate drug abuse in humans,” Weinshenker says “More importantly, it may reveal a neural mechanism through which exercise may prevent the relapse into drug-seeking behavior.”

During the study, Weinshenker and UGA co-investigator Philip Holmes, professor of psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, will measure exercise-induced increases of the galanin gene activity in the rat brain.

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Posted on by sgoodwin in Uncategorized Leave a comment

NIH director visits Emory, Atlanta Clinical & Translational Science Institute

David Stephens, MD, Jim Wagner, PhD, Earl Lewis, PhD, Francis Collins, MD, PhD

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and chief of staff Dr. Kathy Hudson, paid a daylong visit to Emory’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center, including Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and Morehouse School of Medicine on April 14.

The purpose of Collins’ visit was to view the activities of the Atlanta Clinical and Translational Science Institute, one of 46 national CTSAs funded by the NIH through the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR).  Collins also will visit CTSAs at Duke, UNC, and Vanderbilt in the future.

Collins asked that his visit focus on “how CTSAs are enabling science.” It was an opportunity for the ACTSI, a partnership among Emory, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia Institute of Technology and others, including Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Georgia Research Alliance, Georgia BIO, Kaiser Permanente, CDC, the Atlanta VA Medical Center and the Grady Health System, to showcase the unique contributions the ACTSI makes to enabling clinical and translational research.

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Posted on by Holly Korschun in Uncategorized Leave a comment