MSCs: what’s in a name?

Whether they are "stem" or "stromal", from adult tissues or from umbilical cord blood, MSCs are being used for a lot of clinical trials. Read more

Mopping up immune troublemakers after transplant

Memory CD8+ T cells play an important role in kidney transplant rejection, and they resist drugs that would otherwise improve Read more

Tracking a frameshift through the ribosome

Ribosomal frameshifting, visualized through X-ray Read more

Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering

Device for viewing glowing brain tumors

People touched by a brain tumor — patients, their families or friends — may have heard of the drug Gliolan or 5-ALA, which is taken up preferentially by tumor cells and makes them fluorescent. The idea behind it is straightforward: if the neurosurgeon can see the tumor’s boundaries better during surgery, he or she can excise it more thoroughly and accurately.

5-ALA is approved for use in Europe but is still undergoing evaluation by the U.S. FDA. A team at Emory was the first to test this drug in the United States. [Note: A similar approach, based on protease activation of a fluorescent probe, was reported last week in Science Translational Medicine.]

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A hand-held device to detect glowing brain tumors could allow closer access to the critical area than a surgical microscope

Biomedical engineer Shuming Nie and colleagues recently described their development of a hand-held spectroscopic device for viewing fluorescent brain tumors. This presents a contrast with the current tool, a surgical microscope — see figure.

Nie’s team tested their technology on specimens obtained from cancer surgeries. Their paper in Analytical Chemistry reports:

The results indicate that intraoperative spectroscopy is at least 3 orders of magnitude more sensitive than the current surgical microscopes, allowing ultrasensitive detection of as few as 1000 tumor cells. Read more

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Emory labs on LabTV

This summer, video producers from the web site LabTV came to two laboratories at Emory. We are pleased to highlight the first crop of documentary-style videos.

LabTV features hundreds of young researchers from universities and institutes around the United States, who tell the public about themselves and their research. The videos include childhood photos and explanations from the scientists about what they do and what motivates them. Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 9.14.51 AM

The two Emory labs are: Malu Tansey’s lab in the Department of Physiology, which studies the intersection of neuroscience and immunology, focusing on neurodegenerative disease, and Mike Davis’ lab in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, which is developing regenerative approaches and technologies for heart disease in adults and children. Read more

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Inflammation linked to weakened reward circuits in depression

About one third of people with depression have high levels of inflammation markers in their blood. New research indicates that persistent inflammation affects the brain in ways that are connected with stubborn symptoms of depression, such as anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure.

The results were published online on Nov. 10 in Molecular Psychiatry.

The findings bolster the case that the high-inflammation form of depression is distinct, and are guiding researchers’ plans to test treatments tailored for it.

Anhedonia is a core symptom of depression that is particularly difficult to treat, says lead author Jennifer Felger, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute.

“Some patients taking antidepressants continue to suffer from anhedonia,” Felger says. “Our data suggest that by blocking inflammation or its effects on the brain, we may be able to reverse anhedonia and help depressed individuals who fail to respond to antidepressants.”

In a study of 48 patients with depression, high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP (C-reactive protein) were linked with a “failure to communicate”, seen through brain imaging, between regions of the brain important for motivation and reward.

Emory researchers have found that high inflammation in depression is linked to a "failure to communicate" between two parts of the brain: the ventral striatum (VS, vertical cross section) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC, horizontal).

Emory researchers have found that high inflammation in depression is linked to a “failure to communicate” between two parts of the brain: the ventral striatum (VS, vertical cross section) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC, horizontal). Images from Felger et al, Molecular Psychiatry (2015).

Neuroscientists can infer that two regions of the brain talk to each other by watching whether they light up in magnetic resonance imaging at the same times or in the same patterns, even when someone is not doing anything in particular. They describe this as “functional connectivity.”

More here.

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CV cell therapy: bridge between nurse and building block

In the field of cell therapy for cardiovascular diseases, researchers see two main ways that the cells can provide benefits:

*As building blocks – actually replacing dead cells in damaged tissues

*As nurses — supplying growth factors and other supportive signals, but not becoming part of damaged tissues

Tension between these two roles arises partly from the source of the cells.

Many clinical trials have used bone marrow-derived cells, and the benefits here appear to come mostly from the “paracrine” nurse function. A more ambitious approach is to use progenitor-type cells, which may have to come from iPS cells or cardiac stem cells isolated via biopsy-like procedures. These cells may have a better chance of actually becoming part of the damaged tissue’s muscles or blood vessels, but they are more difficult to obtain and engineer.

A related concern: available evidence suggests introduced cells – no matter if they are primarily serving as nurses or building blocks — don’t survive or even stay in their target tissue for long.

Transplanted cells were labeled with a red dye, while a perfused green dye shows the extent of functional blood vessels. Blue is DAPI, staining nuclear DNA. Yellow arrows indicate where red cells appear to contribute to blood vessels.

Transplanted cells were labeled with a red dye, while a perfused green dye shows the extent of functional blood vessels. Blue is DAPI, staining nuclear DNA. Yellow arrows indicate where red cells appear to contribute to green blood vessels. Courtesy of Sangho Lee.

Stem cell biologist Young-sup Yoon and colleagues recently published a paper in Biomaterials in which the authors use chitosan, a gel-like carbohydrate material obtained by processing crustacean shells, to aid in cell retention and survival. Ravi Bellamkonda’s lab at Georgia Tech contributed to the paper.

More refinement of these approaches are necessary before clinical use,  but it illustrates how engineered mixtures of progenitor cells and supportive materials are becoming increasingly sophisticated and complicated.

The chitosan gel resembles the alginate material used to encapsulate cells by the Taylor lab. Yoon’s team was testing efficacy in a hindlimb ischemia model, in which a mouse’s leg is deprived of blood. This situation is analogous to peripheral artery disease, and the readout of success is the ability of experimental treatments to regrow capillaries in the damaged leg.

The current paper builds a bridge between the nurse and building block approaches, because the researchers mix two complementary types of cells: an angiogenic one derived from bone marrow cells that expands existing blood vessels, and a vasculogenic one derived from embryonic stem cells that drives formation of new blood vessels. Note: embryonic stem cells were of mouse origin, not human. Read more

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Transformative awards for Mocarski’s malleable cells, lung fibrosis

The National Institutes of Health has announced a five-year, $1.9 million Transformative Research Award to Emory virologist Edward Mocarski, PhD for his work on how the mechanisms of programmed cell death can be subverted.

Mocarski is Robert W. Woodruff professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Vaccine Center. His research, which originated in probing how cells commit suicide when taken over by viruses, could lead to advances in regenerative medicine and organ transplant.

Barker Mocarski

Thomas Barker, PhD (left) and Edward Mocarski, PhD (right)

The grant, funded through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is one of nine “high-risk-, high-reward” Transformative Research Awards (13 recipients) announced by the NIH on October 6.

In the same group this year, Thomas Barker in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University received a Transformative Research Award for his research on mechanosensors + pulmonary fibrosis.

The Transformative Research Award program supports “exceptionally innovative, unconventional, paradigm-shifting research projects that are inherently risky and untested.” Emory has achieved only one other TRA since the program was established in 2009: Shuming Nie’s project on imaging to guide cancer surgery. Read more

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Tools for illuminating brain function make their own light

Optogenetics has taken neuroscience by storm in recent years because the technique allows scientists to study the brain conveniently in animals, activating or inhibiting selected groups of neurons at the flip of a switch.  Most often, scientists use a fiber optic cable to deliver light into the brain.

Researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech have developed tools that could allow neuroscientists to put aside the fiber optic cable, and use a glowing protein from coral as the light source instead.

Biomedical engineering student Jack Tung and neurosurgeon/neuroscientist Robert Gross, MD, PhD have dubbed these tools “inhibitory luminopsins” because they inhibit neuronal activity both in response to light and to a chemical supplied from outside.

A demonstration of the luminopsins’ capabilities was published September 24 in the journal Scientific Reports.  The authors show that these tools enabled them to modulate neuronal firing, both in culture and in vivo, and modify the behavior of live animals.

Tung and Gross are now using inhibitory luminopsins to study ways to halt or prevent seizure activity in animals.

“We think that this approach may be particularly useful for modeling treatments for generalized seizures and seizures that involve multiple areas of the brain,” Tung says. “We’re also working on making luminopsins responsive to seizure activity: turning on the light only when it is needed, in a closed-loop feedback controlled fashion.” More here. Read more

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Deliver, but not to the liver

The potential of a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference has long enticed biotechnology researchers. It’s used routinely in the laboratory to shut down specific genes in cells. Still, the challenge of delivery has held back RNA-based drugs in treating human disease.

RNA is unstable and cumbersome, and just getting it into the body without having it break down is difficult. One that hurdle is met, there is another: the vast majority of the drug is taken up by the liver. Many current RNA-based approaches turn this apparent bug into a strength, because they seek to treat liver diseases. See these articles in The Scientist and in Technology Review for more.

But what if you need to deliver RNA somewhere besides the liver?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo’s lab at Emory/Georgia Tech, working with Katherine Ferrara’s group at UC Davis, has developed technology to broaden the liver-dominant properties of RNA-based drugs.

Hanjoong Jo, PhD

The results were recently published in ACS Nano. The researchers show they can selectively target an anti-microRNA agent to inflamed blood vessels in mice while avoiding other tissues.

“We have solved a major obstacle of using anti-miRNA as a therapeutic by being able to do a targeted delivery to only inflamed endothelial cells while all other tissues examined, including liver, lung, kidney, blood cells, spleen, etc showed no detectable side-effects,” Jo says. Read more

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Regenerative Engineering & Medicine highlights

Last week on Friday, Lab Land attended the annual Regenerative Engineering & Medicine center get-together to hear about progress in this exciting area.

During his talk, Tony Kim of Georgia Tech mentioned a topic that Rose Eveleth recently explored in The Atlantic: why aren’t doctors using amazing “nanorobots” yet? Or as Kim put it, citing a recent review, “So many papers and so few drugs.”

[A summary: scaling up is difficult, testing pharmacokinetics, toxicity and efficacy is difficult, and so is satisfying the FDA.]

The talks Friday emerged from REM seed grants; many paired an Emory medical researcher with a Georgia Tech biomedical engineer. All of these projects take on challenges in delivering regenerative therapies: getting cells or engineered particles to the right place in the body.

For example, cardiologist W. Robert Taylor discussed the hurdles his team had encountered in scaling up his cells-in-capsules therapies for cardiovascular diseases to pigs, in collaboration with Luke Brewster. The pre-pig phase of this research is discussed in more detail here and here. Read more

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Stem cell/cardiology researcher Hee Cheol Cho joins Emory

Please welcome stem cell/cardiology researcher Hee Cheol Cho to Emory. Starting in September, Cho joined the Wallace H Counter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, and Emory-Children’s Pediatric Research Center. He and his team will focus on developing gene-and cell-based therapies for cardiac arrhythmias. Their research will adding to and complement the research of several groups, such as those led by Chunhui Xu, Young-sup Yoon, Mike Davis and W. Robert Taylor.

Cho comes from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he specialized in understanding cardiac pacemaker cells, a small group of muscle cells in the sinoatrial node of the heart that initiate cardiac contraction. These cells have specialized electrophysiological properties, and much has been learned in the last few years about the genes that control their development.

Cho and colleagues from Cedars-Sinai recently published a paper in Stem Cell Reports describing how the gene SHOX2 can nudge embryonic stem cells into becoming cardiac pacemaker cells. Read more

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Plaque erosion: heart attacks triggered by a whimper, not a bang

Cardiologist Bob Taylor and colleagues have a new paper in PLOS One this week, looking at the biomechanical forces behind plaque erosion.

Plaque erosion is a mechanism for blood clots formation in coronary arteries that is not as well-understood as its more explosive counterpart, plaque rupture. Plaque erosion disproportionally affects women more than men and is thought to account for most heart attacks in younger women (women younger than 50).

“We believe that this work has implications for our better understanding of the underlying biology of coronary artery disease in women,” Taylor says. The first author of the paper is biomedical engineering graduate student Ian Campbell, who now has his PhD. The team collaborated with cardiovascular pathologist Renu Virmani in Maryland.

Cardiologists have well-developed ideas for how plaque rupture works*; see the concept of “vulnerable plaque.” Cholesterol and inflammatory cells build up in the coronary arteries over several years. At one point in a particular artery, the plaque has a core of dying inflammatory cells, covered by a fibrous cap. If the cap is thin (the patterns of blood flows near the cap influence this), there is a risk that the cap will break and the contents of the core will spill out, triggering a blood clot nearby.

Plaque erosion is more mysterious and can occur more gradually, the researchers have found. Read more

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