Elevated troponin after exercise refines cardiac risk prediction

Elevated troponin levels in response to exercise can predict future outcomes in patients with coronary artery disease -- better than stress tests with Read more

For genetically altered mice/rats, freeze and recharge

Animals’ sperm (and occasionally embryos) can be carefully preserved in cold-resistant straws and stored in liquid Read more

Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering

Making cardiac progenitor cells feel at home

One lab uses goopy alginate, another uses peptides that self-assemble into hydrogels. The objective is the same: protecting cells that are injected into the heart and making them feel like they’re at home.

Around the world, thousands of heart disease patients have been treated in clinical studies with some kind of cell-based therapy aimed at regenerating the heart muscle or at least promoting its healing. This approach is widely considered promising, but its effectiveness is limited in that most of the cells don’t stay in the heart or die soon after being introduced. [UPDATE: Nice overview of cardiac cell therapy controversy in July 18 Science]

Biomedical engineer Mike Davis and his colleagues recently published a paper in Biomaterials describing hydrogels that can encourage cardiac progenitor cells injected into the heart to stay in place. The first author is former graduate student Archana Boopathy, who recently started her postdoctoral work at MIT. Davis has been working with these self-assembling peptides for some time: see this 2005 Circulation paper he published during his own postdoctoral work with Richard Lee at Harvard.DavisDiagram

How do these hydrogels keep cells from washing away? We don’t have to go much beyond the name: think Jello. Researchers design snippets of proteins (peptides) that, like Jello*, form semisolid gels under the right conditions in solution. Helpfully, they also are customized with molecular tools for making cardiac progenitor cells happy. Read more

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Epigenetic changes in atherosclerosis

If someone living in America and eating a typical diet and leading a sedentary lifestyle lets a few years go by, we can expect plaques of cholesterol and inflammatory cells to build up in his or her arteries. We’re not talking “Super-size Me” here, we’re just talking average American. But then let’s say that same person decides: “OK, I’m going to shape up. I’m going to eat healthier and exercise more.”

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Let’s leave aside whether low-carb or low-fat is best, and let’s say that person succeeds in sticking to his or her declared goals. How “locked in” are the changes in the blood vessels when someone has healthy or unhealthy blood flow patterns?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo and his colleagues published a paper in Journal of Clinical Investigation that touches on this issue. They have an animal model where disturbed blood flow triggers the accumulation of atherosclerosis. They show that the gene expression changes in endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, have an epigenetic component. Specifically, the durable DNA modification known as methylation is involved, and blocking DNA methylation with a drug used for treating some forms of cancer can prevent atherosclerosis in their model. This suggests that blood vessels retain an epigenetic imprint reflecting the blood flow patterns they see.

Although treating atherosclerosis with the drug decitabine is not a viable option clinically, Jo’s team was able to find several genes that are silenced by disturbed blood flow and that need DNA methylation to stay shut off. A handful of those genes have a common mechanism of regulation and may be good therapeutic targets for drug discovery.

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Targeting naked DNA in the heart

Hoechst-Structure-300px

The first thing that comes up in a Google search for “Hoechst” is the family of fluorescent dyes used to stain DNA in cells before microscopy. The Hoechst dyes derive their names from their manufacturer: a company, now part of Sanofi, named after the town where it was founded, which is now part of Frankfurt, Germany. The word itself means “highest [spot].”

Although DNA runs the show in every cell, it’s usually well-hidden inside the nucleus or the mitochondria. Extracellular DNA’s presence is a signal that injury is happening and cells are dying.

Biomedical engineer Mike Davis and collaborator Niren Murthy have been exploiting the properties of a DNA-binding dye called Hoechst 33342, often used to stain DNA in cells before microscopy. The dye can only bind DNA if it can get to the DNA – that is, if membranes are broken. This property makes the dye a good way to target injured tissue, either as an imaging agent or for therapy.

At the recent Pediatric Healthcare Innovation retreat, Davis discussed the potential use of such Hoechst derivatives to diagnose myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) in children.

In addition, in a recent paper published in Scientific Reports, Davis and his colleagues attach the Hoechst dye to the cardioprotective growth factor IGF-1, creating a version of IGF-1 that is targeted to injured heart muscle. The first author of the paper is cardiology fellow Raffay Khan, MD. Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 1.18.35 PM

IGF-1 has shown a lot of potential for treating heart disease, but it’s not the most cooperative as a drug, because it doesn’t last long in the body and doesn’t stick around in the heart. Linked up to the dye, IGF-1 behaves better. When used to treat mouse hearts after a heart attack, the Hoechst-IGF-1 treated-hearts have better function and less scar tissue (seen here as red).

The authors conclude:

With the broad chemistry surrounding functionalized PEG used to create Hoechst derivatives, it may be possible to target other therapies such as cells, small molecules, and even nanoparticles. We believe that the use of DNA binding agents such as Hoechst can be used to target exposed DNA in other diseases where necrotic cell death plays a critical role and could be used as a platform therapy.

 

 

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Fluorescent jungle gyms made of DNA

The 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage” presented a vision of the future that includes tiny machines gliding through the body and repairing injuries. Almost 50 years later, scientists are figuring out how to form building blocks for such machines from DNA.

A new paper in Science describes DNA-based polyhedral shapes that are larger and stronger than scientists have built before. Right now, these are just static shapes. But they provide the scaffolding on which scientists could build robot walkers, or cages with doors that open and close. Already, researchers are talking about how such structures could be used to deliver drugs precisely to particular cells or locations in the body.

“Currently DNA self-assembly is perhaps one of the most promising methods for making those nanoscale machines,” says co-author Yonggang Ke, PhD, who recently joined the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University as assistant professor.

The research team was led by Peng Yin, PhD at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Working with the same team, Ke was also first author on a 2012 paper in Science describing “DNA bricks” resembling LEGO® blocks.

In the current paper, the shapes are made up of strut-reinforced tripods, which assemble themselves from individual DNA strands in a process called “DNA origami.” Already, at 5 megadaltons, each tripod is more massive than the largest known single protein (titin, involved in muscle contraction) and more massive than a ribosome, one of the cellular factories in which proteins are made. The tripods in turn can form prism-like structures, 100 nanometers on each side, that begin to approach the size of cellular organelles such as mitochondria.

The prism structures are still too small to see with light microscopes. Because electron microscopy requires objects to be dried and flattened, the researchers used a fluorescence-based imaging technique called “DNA PAINT” to visualize the jungle-gym-like structures in solution.

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DNA is not necessarily the most durable material for building a tiny machine. It is vulnerable to chemical attack, and enzymes inside the body readily chew up DNA, especially exposed ends. However, DNA presents some advantages: it’s easy (and cheap) to synthesize in the laboratory, and DNA base-pairing is selective. In fact, says Ke, these intricate structures assemble themselves: put all the components together in one tube, and all the DNA sequences that are supposed to pair up find each other.DNA polyhedra

Each leg of the tripod is made of 16 DNA double helices, connected together in ways that constrain the structure and make it stiff. The tripods have “sticky ends” that are selective and can assemble into the larger pyramids or prism structures. Previous efforts to build polyhedral structures were like trying to make a jungle gym out of rope: they were too floppy and hard to assemble.

To see the pyramid and prism structures, the research team used the “DNA-PAINT” technique, which uses fluorescent DNA probes that transiently bind to the DNA structures. This method enables visualization of structures that cannot be seen with a conventional light microscope. Why not simply make the DNA structures themselves fluorescent? Because shining strong light on such structures would quickly quench their fluorescence signal.

In his own work in Atlanta, Ke says he plans to further customize the DNA structures, combining the DNA with additional chemistry to add other functional molecules, including proteins or nanoparticles. He is especially interested in developing DNA-based materials that can manipulate or respond to light or carry magnets, with potential biomedical applications such as MRI imaging or targeted drug delivery.

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Herding terrorist cats

Wikipedia says that “herding cats” refers to an attempt to control or organize a class of entities that are uncontrollable or chaotic.

Cancer cells certainly qualify as uncontrollable or chaotic, so the metaphor could apply to a recent Nature Materials paper from Georgia Tech and Emory’s Ravi Bellamkonda – a member of Winship Cancer Institute.

Glioblastoma is the worst of the worst: the most common and the most aggressive form of brain tumor in adults. The tumors are known to invade healthy tissue and migrate along white matter tracts and blood vessels. Bellamkonda and his colleagues devised a strategy for luring glioblastoma cells out of the brain by offering the cells attractive nanofibers that the cells will Ray Ban outlet attempt to invade. When the cells arrive, they undergo apoptosis — cellular suicide. He has called this “an engineer’s approach to brain cancer” (in a lecture a couple months ago) and “the Pied Piper approach” (in the video below).

(It’s not the first time Bellamkonda has unfurled dazzling technology against glioblastoma, developed with an Emory collaborator.)

Bellamkonda’s collaborator this time, Tobey Macdonald, director of pediatric neuro-oncology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, is credited in the paper with coming up with the aspect of the strategy that was based on the molecule cyclopamine. This earlier story from CHOA provides more background on how the collaboration came together.

Cyclopamine

Cyclopamine is key to the “lure ’em out and kill ’em” strategy. Most high-grade brain tumors overproduce a protein called Sonic Hedgehog, spurring their growth. Cyclopamine is selectively toxic only to cells that are dependent on Sonic Hedgehog. Cyclopamine’s name comes from how it was discovered: through its teratogenic effects on sheep in Idaho that ate corn lily flowers.

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Fragile but potent: RNA delivered by nanoparticle

An intriguing image for November comes from biomedical engineer Mike Davis’ lab, courtesy of BME graduate student Inthirai Somasuntharam.

Each year, thousands of children undergo surgery for congenital heart defects. A child’s heart is more sensitive to injury caused by interrupting blood flow during surgery, and excess reactive oxygen species are a key source of this damage.

Macrophages with blue nuclei and red cytoskeletons, being treated with green nano particles. The particles carry RNA that shut off reactive oxygen species production.

Macrophages with blue nuclei and red cytoskeletons, being treated with green nano particles. The particles carry RNA that shut off reactive oxygen species production.

Davis and his colleagues are able to shut off cheap oakley reactive oxygen species at the source by targeting the NOX (NADPH oxidase*) enzymes that produce them. This photo, from a 2013 Biomaterials paper, shows green fluorescent nanoparticles carrying small interfering RNA. The RNA precisely shuts down one particular gene encoding a NOX enzyme. Eventually, similar nanoparticles may shield the heart from damage during pediatric heart surgery.

In the paper, Somasuntharam used particles made of a slowly dissolving polymer called polyketals. The particles delivered fragile but potent RNA molecules into macrophages, inflammatory cells that swarm into cardiac tissue after a heart attack. Davis and Georgia Tech colleague Niren Murthy previously harnessed this polymer to deliver drugs that can be toxic to the rest of the body.

The polyketal particles are especially well-suited for delivering a payload to macrophages, since those types of cells (as the name implies) are big eaters. Davis reports his lab has been working on customizing the particles so they can deliver RNA molecules into cardiac muscle cells as well.

*While we’re on the topic of NADPH oxidases, Susan Smith and David Lambeth have been looking for and finding potential drugs that inhibit them.

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Packaging stem cells in capsules for heart therapy

Stem cell therapy for heart disease is happening. Around the world, thousands of heart disease patients have been treated in clinical studies with some form of bone marrow cells or stem cells. But in many of those studies, the actual impact on heart function was modest or inconsistent. One reason is that most of the cells either don’t stay in the heart or die soon after being introduced into the body.

Cardiology researchers at Emory have a solution for this problem. The researchers package stem cells in a capsule made of alginate, a gel-like substance. Once packaged, the cells stay put, releasing their healing factors over time.

Researchers used encapsulated mesenchymal stem cells to form a “patch” that was applied to the hearts of rats after a heart attack. Compared with animals treated with naked cells (or with nothing), rats treated with the capsule patches displayed increased heart function, reduced scar size and more growth of new blood vessels a month later. In addition, many more of the encapsulated cells stayed alive. Read more

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Molecular beacons shine path to cardiac muscle repair

Pure cardiac muscle cells, ready to transplant into a patient affected by heart disease.

That’s a goal for many cardiology researchers working with stem cells. Having a pure population of cardiac muscle cells is essential for avoiding tumor formation after transplantation, but has been technically challenging.

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Fluorescent beacons that distinguish cardiac muscle cells

Researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech have developed a method for Cheap Oakleys purifying cardiac muscle cells from stem cell cultures using molecular beacons.

Molecular beacons are tiny “instruments” that become fluorescent only when they find cells that have turned on certain genes. In this case, they target instructions to make a type of myosin, a protein found in cardiac muscle cells.

Doctors could use purified cardiac muscle cells to heal damaged areas of the heart in patients affected by heart attack and heart failure. In addition, the molecular beacons technique http://www.lependart.com could have broad applications across regenerative medicine, because it could be used with other types of cells produced from stem cell cultures, such as brain cells or insulin-producing islet cells.

The results are published in the journal Circulation.

“Often, we want to generate a particular cell population from stem cells for introduction into patients,” says co-senior author Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD, professor of medicine (cardiology) and director of stem cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine. “But the desired cells often lack a readily accessible surface marker, or that marker is not specific enough, as is the case for cardiac muscle cells. This technique could allow us to purify almost any type of cell.”

Read more

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Dynamic functional connectivity

How can neuroscientists tell that distant parts of the brain are talking to each other?

They can look for a physical connection, like neurons that carry signals between the two. They could probe the brain with electricity. However, to keep the brain intact and examine cheap oakley function in a living person or animal, a less invasive approach may be in order.

Looking for functional connectivity has grown in popularity in recent years. This is a way of analyzing fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, which measure activity in the brain by looking at changes in blood oxygen. If two regions of the brain “light up” at the same time, and do so in a consistent enough pattern, that indicates that those two regions are connected.*

Functional connectivity networks

Shella Keilholz and her colleagues have been looking at functional connectivity data very closely, and how the apparent connections fluctuate over short time periods. This newer form of analysis is called “dynamic” or “time-varying” functional connectivity. Functional connectivity analyses can be performed while the person or animal in the scanner is at rest, not doing anything complicated.

“Even if you’re lying in the scanner daydreaming, your mind is jumping around,” she says. “But the way neuroscientists usually average fMRI data over several minutes means losing lots of information.”

Keilholz is part of the Wallace H Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. She participated in a workshop at the most recent Human Brain Mapping meeting in Seattle devoted to the topic. She says neuroscientists have already started using dynamic functional connectivity to detect differences in the brain’s network properties in schizophrenia. However, some of that information may be noise. Skeptical tests have shown that head motion or breathing can push scientists into inferring connections that aren’t really there. For dynamic analysis especially, preprocessing can lead to apparent correlations between two randomly matched signals.

“I got into this field as a skeptic,” she says. “Several years ago, I didn’t believe functional connectivity really reflects coordinated brain activity.”

Now Keilholz and her colleagues have shown for the first time that dynamic functional connectivity data is “grounded”, because it is linked with changes in electrical signals within the brain. The results were published in July in the journal NeuroImage. The first author is graduate student Garth Thompson. Read more

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The next generation of biomedical engineering innovators

Congratulations to the winners of the InVenture innovation competition at Georgia Tech. The competition aired Wednesday night on Georgia Public Broadcasting. The winners get cash prizes, a free patent filing and commercialization service through Georgia Tech’s Office of Technology Transfer.

Several of the teams have Emory connections, through the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, and the Atlanta Clinical & Translational Science Institute.

Emergency medical professionals know that intubation can be rough. The second place ($10,000) MAID team created a “magnetic assisted intubation device” that helps them place a breathing tube into the trachea in a smoother way. The MAID was designed by Alex Cooper, Shawna Hagen, William Thompson and Elizabeth Flanagan, all biomedical engineering majors. Their clinical advisor was Brian Morse, MD, previously a trauma fellow and now an Emory School of Medicine surgical critical care resident at Grady Memorial Hospital.

“When I first saw the device that the students had developed, I was blown away,” Morse told the Technique newspaper. “It’s probably going to change the way we look at intubation in the next five to 10 years.”

The AutoRhexis team, which won the People’s Choice award ($5,000), invented a device to perform the most difficult step during cataract removal surgery. It was designed by a team of biomedical and mechanical engineering majors: Chris Giardina, Rebeca Bowden, Jorge Baro, Kanitha Kim, Khaled Kashlan and Shane Saunders. They were advised by Tim Johnson, MD, who was an Emory medical student and is now a resident at Columbus Regional Medical Center.

The finalist Proximer team, advised by Emory surgeon Albert Losken, MD, developed a way to detect plastics in the body, which can help breast cancer survivors undergoing reconstruction.

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