‘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

variable lymphocyte receptor

Exotic immune systems are big business

What timing! Just when our feature on Max Cooper and lamprey immunology was scheduled for publication, the Japan Prize Foundation announced it would honor Cooper and his achievements.

Cooper was one of the founders of modern immunology. We connect his early work with his lab’s more recent focus on lampreys, primitive parasites with surprisingly sophisticated immune systems.

Molecules from animals with exotic immune systems can be big business, as Andrew Joseph from STAT News points out. Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi recently bought a company focused on nanobodies, originally derived from camels, llamas and alpacas, for $4.8 billion.

Lampreys’ variable lymphocyte receptors (VLRs) are their version of antibodies, even though they look quite different in molecular terms. Research on VLRs and their origins may seem impractical. However, Cooper’s team has shown their utility as diagnostic tools, and his colleagues have been weaponizing them, possibly for use in cancer immunotherapy.

CAR-T cells have attracted attention for dramatic elimination of certain types of leukemias from the body and also for harsh side effects and staggering costs; see this opinion piece by Georgia Tech’s Aaron Levine. Now many research teams are scheming about how to apply the approach to other types of cancers. The provocative idea is: replace the standard CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) warhead with a lamprey VLR.

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Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Immunology Leave a comment

Lampreys and the reverse spy problem

Call it the reverse spy problem. If you were a spy who wanted to gain access to a top secret weapons factory, your task would be to fit in. The details of your employee badge, for example, should look just right.

As described in this 2016 JCI Insight paper, Emory and University of Toronto investigators wanted to do the opposite. They were aiming to develop antibody tools for studying and manipulating plasma cells, which are the immune system’s weapons factories, where antibody production takes place. The situation is flipped when we’re talking about antibodies. Here, the goal is to stand out.

Do these guys look like good spies?

Monoclonal antibodies are classic biomedical tools (and important anticancer drugs). But it’s tricky to develop antibodies against the places where antibodies themselves are made, because of the way the immune system develops. To guard against autoimmune disease, antibodies that would react against substances in the body are often edited out.

To get around this obstacle, researchers used organisms that have very different immune systems from humans: lampreys. Emory’s Max Cooper and colleagues had already shown how lampreys have molecules — variable lymphocyte receptors or VLRs — that function like antibodies, but don’t look like them, in terms of their molecular structure.

From the paper:

We reasoned that the unique protein architecture of VLR Abs and the great evolutionary distance between lampreys and humans would allow the production of novel VLRB Abs against biomedically relevant antigens against which conventional Abs are not readily produced because of structural or tolerogenic constraints.

Senior author Goetz Ehrhardt, now at University of Toronto, used to be in Cooper’s lab, and their two labs worked together on the JCI Insight paper. Read more

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Alternative antibody architecture

This complex diagram, showing the gene segments that encode lamprey variable lymphocyte receptors, comes from a recent PNAS paper published by Emory’s Max Cooper and his colleagues along with collaborators from Germany led by Thomas Boehm. Lampreys have molecules that resemble our antibodies in function, but they look very different at the protein level. The study of lamprey immunity provides hints to how the vertebrate immune system has evolved.
PNAS-2014-Das-1415580111_Page_4

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Lampreys hint at origin of ancient immune cells

Lamprey slideStudying lampreys allows biologists to envision the evolutionary past, because they represent an early offshoot of the evolutionary tree, before sharks and fish. Despite their inconspicuous appearance, lampreys have a sophisticated immune system with three types of white blood cell that resemble our B and T cells, researchers have discovered.

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine and the Max Planck Institute of Immunology and Epigenetics in Freiburg have identified a type of white blood cell in lampreys analogous to the “gamma delta T cells” found in mammals, birds and fish. Gamma delta T cells have specialized roles defending the integrity of the skin and intestines, among other functions.

The results are published in the journal Nature. The finding follows an earlier study showing that cells resembling two main types of white blood cells, B cells and T cells, are present in lampreys.

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