Study finds ‘important implications’ to understanding immunity against COVID-19

New research from Emory University indicates that nearly all people hospitalized with COVID-19 develop virus-neutralizing antibodies within six days of testing positive. The findings will be key in helping researchers understand protective immunity against SARS-CoV-2 and in informing vaccine development. The test that Emory researchers developed also could help determine whether convalescent plasma from COVID-19 survivors can provide immunity to others, and which donors' plasma should be used. The antibody test developed by Emory and validated Read more

Emory plays leading role in landmark HIV prevention study of injectable long-acting cabotegravir

Emory University played a key role in a landmark international study evaluating the safety and efficacy of the long-acting, injectable drug, cabotegravir (CAB LA), for HIV prevention. The randomized, controlled, double-blind study found that cabotegravir was 69% more effective (95% CI 41%-84%) in preventing HIV acquisition in men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women who have sex with men when compared to the current standard of care, daily oral emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate Read more

Yerkes researchers find Zika infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain problems

Researchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown Zika virus infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain and behavior problems, including persistent socioemotional, cognitive and motor deficits, as well as abnormalities in brain structure and function. This study is one of the first to shed light on potential long-term effects of Zika infection after birth. “Researchers have shown the devastating damage Zika virus causes to a fetus, but we had questions about Read more

prostate cancer

Immune outposts inside tumors predict post-surgery outcomes

The immune system establishes “forward operating bases”, or lymph node-like structures, inside the tumors of some patients with kidney and other urologic cancers, researchers at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have discovered.

From left to right: Carey Jansen, Nataliya Prokhnevska, Hadyn Kissick and Viraj Master

Patients with well-supported immune cells in their tumors are more likely to control their cancers’ growth for a longer time — findings that could guide treatment decisions after surgery for kidney cancer. In addition, ongoing work has found the observation is broadly applicable to many cancer types, and it could help researchers expand the dramatic but sparse benefits of cancer immunotherapy to more people.

The results were published Wednesday, Dec. 11 in Nature.

“We knew that if there are more T cells in a tumor, the patient is likely to respond better to cancer immunotherapy,” says lead author Haydn Kissick, PhD. “But we were looking at a more basic question: why do some tumors have lots of T cells in them, and others don’t?”

Kissick is assistant professor of urology and microbiology and immunology at Emory University School of Medicine, Emory Vaccine Center and Winship Cancer Institute. His lab collaborated with surgeons and oncologists at Winship to examine tumor samples removed from patients with kidney, prostate and bladder cancer.

CD8 T cells hunt down and eliminate intruders – in this case, cancer cells. In patients with high levels of CD8 T cells residing in their tumors, their immune systems appeared to be better trained to suppress cancer growth after surgery, when small numbers of cancer cells (micrometastases) may be lurking elsewhere in the body. The cancers of those who had lower levels of CD8 T cells tended to progress four times more quickly after surgery than those with higher levels.

The finding has important implications, says Viraj Master, MD, who performed most of the kidney cancer surgeries. In this situation, additional treatments are not performed unless or until kidney cancer reappears, says Master, who is Fray F. Marshall Chair and professor of urology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship’s Director of Integrative Oncology and Survivorship.

“Even after potentially curative surgery for aggressive kidney cancers, a significant fraction of patients will experience cancer recurrence,” he says. “But with this information, we could predict more confidently that some people won’t need anything else, thus avoiding overtreatment. However, on the basis of these findings, for others who are at higher risk of recurrence, we could potentially scan at more regular intervals, and ideally, design adjuvant therapy trials.”

The findings also provide insights for scientists interested in how the immune system successfully controls some cancers, but with others, the T cells become increasingly exhausted and ineffective.

“This study may lead to new insights into why immunotherapy can be so effective in some cancer types, but rarely works in others such as prostate cancer, and may highlight a path forward for developing more effective immunotherapy treatments,” says Howard Soule, PhD, executive vice president and chief science officer for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, which supported the Winship team’s work.

Kissick and his colleagues were surprised to find “stem-like” T cells, or precursors of exhausted cells, inside tumor samples. Stem-like T cells are the ones that proliferate in response to cancer immunotherapy drugs, which can revive the immune system’s ability to fight the cancer.

Tumor sample with high level of T cell infiltration. Red = CD8, yellow = MHC class II, a sign of APCs

“Lymph nodes are like ‘home base’ for the stem-like T cells,” says Carey Jansen, an MD/PhD student who is the first author of the Nature paper. “We had expected that the stem-like cells would stay in lymphoid tissue and deploy other T cells to infiltrate and fight the cancer. But instead, the immune system seems to set up an outpost, or a forward base, inside the tumor itself.”

The researchers found that other immune cells called “antigen-presenting cells” or APCs, which are usually found within lymph nodes, can also be seen within tumors. APCs help the T cells figure out when and what to attack. Like high numbers of CD8 T cells, high numbers of APCs in tumors were also a predictor of longer progression-free survival in kidney cancer patients.

The APCs and the stem-like cells were usually together within the same “nests,” in a way that resemble how the two types of cells interact in lymph nodes. This relationship was apparent in kidney cancers and also in samples from prostate and bladder cancers.

“The question of how the stem-like cells get into a tumor was not answered, but we do think that the APCs support the stem-like cells and are necessary for their maintenance,” Kissick says. “Given that these are the cells responsive to cancer immunotherapy agents, focusing on the relationship between the APCs and the T cells within the tumors could be valuable.”

Additional co-authors include: graduate student Nataliya Prokhnevska, urology chair Martin Sanda, MD and biostatistician Yuan Liu, PhD.

The research was supported by the National Cancer Institute (R00CA197891, U01CA113913), the Prostate Cancer Foundation, Swim Across America, the James M. Cox Foundation, James C. Kennedy, the Dunwoody Country Club Senior Men’s Association and an educational grant from Adaptive Technologies.

 

 

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Urine tests for prostate cancer could reduce biopsies

In the prostate cancer field, there has been a push to move beyond PSA testing. With urine tests, it may be possible to avoid biopsies for men with suspected prostate cancer.

Martin Sanda, MD is chair of urology and leads Winship’s prostate cancer program

With PSA testing to guide decisions, only one in five men is found via biopsy to have a cancer that is sufficiently aggressive (Gleason score of 7 or higher) to warrant treatment right away.

A recently published paper in JAMA Oncology from urologist Martin Sanda and colleagues in the NCI’s Early Detection Research Network shows the potential of urine testing. Sanda’s team reports that two prostate cancer RNA biomarkers detectable in urine (PCA3 and T2:ERG) could be combined to enhance their discriminatory power and reduce unnecessary biopsies by almost half.

The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Currents blog has an extensive discussion of the JAMA Oncology paper. Read more

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FDA approves Emory-developed cancer imaging probe

A cancer imaging agent that was originally developed at Emory was approved on Friday, May 27 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Axumin, a PET (positron emission tomography) imaging agent, is indicated for diagnosis of recurrent prostate cancer in men who have elevated PSA levels after previous treatment. Axumin, now being commercialized by UK-based Blue Earth Diagnostics, is also known as 18F-fluciclovine or FACBC (an abbreviation for anti-1-amino-3-[18F]fluorocyclobutane-1- carboxylic acid).

goodman-schuster

Mark Goodman, PhD (left) and David Schuster, MD (right)

Imaging using axumin/fluciclovine is expected to help doctors detect and localize recurrent prostate cancer, and could guide biopsy or the planning of additional treatment. Fluciclovine was originally developed at Emory by Mark Goodman and Timothy Shoup, who is now at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The earliest research on fluciclovine in the 1990s was on its use for imaging brain tumors, and it received a FDA “orphan drug” designation for the diagnosis of glioma in 2015. About a decade ago, Emory researchers stumbled upon fluciclovine’s utility with prostate cancer, while investigating its activity in a patient who appeared to have renal cancer, according to radiologist David Schuster, who has led several clinical studies testing fluciclovine.

“This led us to see if this radiotracer would be good for looking at prostate cancer, specifically because of its low native urinary excretion,” Schuster is quoted as saying in the radiology newsletter Aunt Minnie. “If you look at the history of medical science, it is taking advantage of the unexpected.”

Early research on the probe was supported by Nihon Mediphysics, and later support for clinical research on FACBC/fluciclovine came from the National Cancer Institute, the Georgia Research Alliance and the Georgia Cancer Coalition. [Both Emory and Goodman are eligible to receive royalties from its commercialization]. Additional information here.

References for two completed studies on fluciclovine in recurrent prostate cancer

Odewole OA et al. Comparison with CT imaging (2016) 

Schuster DM et al. Head to head comparison with ProstaScint (2014). Read more

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Promising probe for detecting recurrent prostate cancer

Part of the new Winship magazine feature on prostate cancer focuses on a PET imaging probe called FACBC, which was developed by radiologists at Emory. 18F-FACBC (anti-1-amino-3-[18F]fluorocyclobutane-1-carboxylic acid, also called “fluciclovine”) has a lengthening track record in detecting recurrent prostate cancer.

Structure of FACBC, from patent application.

Usually in PET imaging, radioactive glucose is injected into the body, and since cancer cells have a sweet tooth, they take up a lot of the radioactive tracer. But plenty of the tracer also appears in the urine, complicating prostate cancer detection efforts, since the prostate is so close to the bladder. In contrast, FACBC is readily taken up by prostate cancer cells, but doesn’t appear as much in urine.

Because of space considerations, we did not include David Schuster’s description of how FACBC’s utility in prostate was first discovered. Several years ago, he and Mark Goodman had begun investigating the probe’s potential in imaging brain tumors and kidney tumors, and used it with a patient with a large renal mass and many enlarged lymph nodes, as described in the radiology newsletter Aunt Minnie. Read more

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Why checkpoint inhibitors fall short for some types of cancer

The big news from the recent American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting has been largely about immunotherapy drugs, also known as checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs have been shown to be effective in prolonging life in patients with some types of cancer, such as lung cancer and melanoma, but not others, such as colorectal and prostate cancer.

Lab Land asked oncologist Bradley Carthon and immunology researcher Haydn Kissick why. Both Carthon’s clinical work and Kissick’s lab research on prostate cancer are featured in the new issue of Winship magazine, but the prostate feature just touches on checkpoint inhibitors briefly.

Carthon says the reason checkpoint inhibitors haven’t moved the needle with prostate cancer is “likely due to the absence of infiltration of the prostatic tissue by tumor-associated lymphocytes.”

Checkpoint inhibitors are supposed to unleash the immune system, but if the immune cells aren’t in contact with the cancer cells so that the drugs can spur them into action, they won’t help much. Carthon says: “The answer may be to ‘prime’ the prostate with an agent, then introduce the checkpoint inhibitors.” Read more

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Moving urology beyond the PSA test

The PSA (prostate specific antigen) blood test has been criticized for years for driving men to seek biopsies and then definitive treatment for slow-growing cancers that may not pose a danger.

At the recent AUA meeting in New Orleans, urologist Martin Sanda presented results from research on tests that could allow the urology field to move beyond the PSA test as it is now. Winship magazine’s cover story has more on this topic.

Martin Sanda, MD is director of Winship Cancer Institute’s Prostate Cancer Program and chair of urology at Emory University School of Medicine

Right now, only about a sixth of men who have a biopsy based on the results of a PSA test have something that doctors agree should be called a cancer (a tumor with a Gleason score of seven or higher).

Sanda described studies on a urine test that could double that specificity, possibly eliminating unnecessary biopsies for many men. Read more

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No junk: long RNA mimics DNA, restrains hormone responses

It arises from what scientists previously described as “junk DNA” or “the dark matter of the genome,” but this gene is definitely not junk. The gene Gas5 acts as a brake on steroid hormone receptors, making it a key player in diseases such as hormone-sensitive prostate and breast cancer.

Unlike many genes scientists are familiar with, Gas5 does not encode a protein. It gets transcribed into RNA, like many other genes, but with Gas5 the RNA is what’s important, not the protein. The RNA accumulates in cells subjected to stress and soaks up steroid hormone receptors, preventing them from binding DNA and turning genes on and off.

Emory researchers have obtained a detailed picture of how the Gas5 RNA interacts with steroid hormone receptors. Their findings show how the Gas5 RNA takes the place of DNA, and give hints as to how it evolved.

The results were published Friday in Nature Communications.

Scientists used to think that much of the genome was “fly-over country”: not encoding any protein and not even accessed much by the cell’s gene-reading machinery. Recent studies have revealed that a large part of the genome is copied into lincRNAs (long intergenic noncoding RNAs), of which Gas5 is an example. Read more

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Statins, prostate cancer and mitochondria

In honor of Fathers’ Day, we are examining a connection between two older-male-centric topics: statins and prostate cancer.

Statins are a very widely prescribed class of drugs used to lower cholesterol levels, for the purpose of preventing cardiovascular disease. In cell culture, they appear to kill prostate cancer cells, but the epidemiological evidence is murkier. Statin effects on prostate cancer incidence have been up in the air, but recent reports point to the possibility that starting statins may slow progression, after a man has been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Winship Cancer Institute researchers have some new results that shed some light on this effect. John Petros, Rebecca Arnold and Qian Sun have found that mutations in mitochondrial DNA make prostate cancer cells resistant to cell death induced by simvastatin [Zocor, the most potent generic statin]. Sun recently presented the results at the American Urological Association meeting in Orlando.

In other forms of cancer such as breast and lung cancer, genomic profiling can determine what DNA mutations are driving cancer growth and what drugs are likely to be effective in fighting the cancer. The prostate cancer field has not reached the same point, partly because prostate cancers are not generally treated with chemotherapy until late in the game, Petros says. But potentially, information on mitochondrial mutations could guide decisions on whether to initiate statin (or another) therapy.

“This is part of our soapbox,” he says. “When we are looking at mutational effects on prostate cancer, let’s be sure to include the mitochondrial genome.”

Winship’s Carlos Moreno and his colleagues are working on the related question of biomarkers that predict prostate cancer progression, after prostatectomy surgery and potentially after just a biopsy.

Read more

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Highlights and links from PSA debate

On January 8, Emory University School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine Grand Rounds had an unusual format: a debate between Otis Brawley, MD and John Petros, MD on the topic of PSA testing.

Otis Brawley, MD

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death for American men. PSA (prostate specific antigen) is a protein produced by the prostate gland and its levels can be measured by a simple blood test.  A higher number could indicate prostate cancer, but the test doesn’t differentiate between an aggressive, fast-growing cancer, and one that is so slow-growing it wouldn’t threaten a man’s life.

Brawley, professor of hematology and medical oncology and chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, led off the debate arguing that studies show PSA testing to be unreliable and possibly leading to too many diagnoses and unnecessary treatment for prostate cancer. Petros, a professor of urology who treats prostate cancer patients, looked at other studies (more details below), which show the PSA test to be a tool that has helped save lives by detecting prostate cancer at earlier stages.

In May 2012, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued a “grade D” rating for PSA screening, saying the practice offers more harms — in terms of complications from PSA-test-driven treatment such as incontinence and blood clots — than benefits. Brawley agreed with this Ray Ban outlet assessment and says he’s not convinced the PSA test saves lives, but he doesn’t rule out its use. He framed this issue this way:

Pretend you are offered the choice of taking a pill that will double the risk of prostate cancer diagnosis from 10 to 20 percent, but could decrease risk of prostate cancer death by one fifth: from 3 to 2.4 percent.  “Do you feel lucky?” Brawley quipped.

John Petros, MD

As a counterpoint, Petros cited National Cancer Institute epidemiology data indicating that the rate of metastatic prostate cancer has substantially decreased over the last few decades, since prostate cancers are now being diagnosed at an earlier stage. He also went over studies conducted in Sweden (Goteborg) and in Austria (Tyrol), which show significant reductions in prostate cancer-related mortality coming from PSA testing.

Five things Brawley and Petros agreed on:

  1. PSA testing should be performed in the context of a physician-patient relationship, with men making an informed decision about the value of the information they will receive and the associated risks.
  2. Vans in supermarket parking lots – more broadly, community- or employer-based screening  — are not the ideal setting for PSA testing.
  3. The PLCO study, a NCI-sponsored randomized clinical trial to examine the effects of screening on cancer-related mortality, was flawed. In particular, the “control” arm had a substantial rate of PSA testing.
  4. Brawley said: “Some cancers that are detected early do not pose a threat and do not need to be treated.” Similarly, Petros said: “Prostate cancer can be low risk if safely observed, but high risk forms are lethal. We need to focus on cancers that matter.”
  5. Biomarkers that are better than PSA alone are needed. Brawley said: “We need a 2013 definition of prostate cancer, informed by genomics, rather than going by what Virchow decided prostate cancer looks like under the microscope 160 years ago.”

Petros agreed with this last point and noted that more sophisticated tests than PSA already have been identified such as the prostate health index, which measures levels for three forms of PSA and may be more cancer-specific. Research being conducted at Emory by Carlos Moreno and colleagues also moves toward this goal. In 2011, his team published results in the American Journal of Pathology on a panel of biomarkers that can predict prostate cancer outcomes after prostatectomy. The Atlanta Business Chronicle recently had a story on a patent related to Moreno’s research.

Petros said a key question, and one he and Moreno are planning on testing, is whether the same biomarkers could be useful on prostate biopsy samples. This could help make treatment decisions regarding surgery vs radiation. Biopsy-based tests could be combined with data based on urine biomarkers, to get around the problem of tumor heterogeneity and imperfect sampling, Petros said.

For now, Petros said he believes in initiating a conversation about PSA screening with patients 50 and older, or younger if they have risk factors for the disease.   He said the decision to have routine PSA testing, follow-up tests and prostate cancer treatments, is a very individualized process.

“It comes down to, what do you tell the man standing in front of you?” he said. “You have to consider where they are in life and what their goals are, and that varies with every man.”

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A family of troublemakers known as XMRV

A long-delayed paper on the connection between chronic fatigue syndrome and XMRV (xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus) finally surfaced last week in PNAS. Astute readers may recall that XMRV has also been linked to prostate cancer.

Detecting XMRV in prostate tissue. A variety of assays (neutralizing antibodies, polymerase chain reaction or fluorescence in situ hybridization) may be used to look for XMRV

The twist from last week’s paper is that the NIH/FDA team, led by Harvey Alter, didn’t find viruses all with the same sequence in chronic fatigue patients. Instead, they found a cluster of closely related, but different, viruses. While confusing, these results may explain why tests for the presence of the virus that are based on viral DNA sequences may have generated varying (and conflicting) results. An alternative assay based on antibodies, such as the one urologist John Petros and colleagues at Emory developed, may be useful because it casts a wider net.

Pathologist Hinh Ly has been diving into the XMRV field, with a recent paper in Journal of Virology describing what “gateway” (receptor) molecule the virus uses to sneak into cells and what kinds of cells in the prostate it can infect.

In a collaboration with Ila Singh at the University of Utah, antiviral drug expert Raymond Schinazi has found that a number of drugs active against HIV also stop XMRV. This offers some hope that if doctors can detect members of the XMRV family, and figure out what they’re up to, they might be able to combat the troublemakers as well.

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