Peeling away pancreatic cancers' defenses

A combination immunotherapy approach that gets through pancreatic cancers’ extra Read more

Immune cell activation in severe COVID-19 resembles lupus

In severe cases of COVID-19, Emory researchers have been observing an exuberant activation of B cells, resembling acute flares in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease. The findings point towards tests that could separate some COVID-19 patients who need immune-calming therapies from others who may not. It also may begin to explain why some people infected with SARS-CoV-2 produce abundant antibodies against the virus, yet experience poor outcomes. The results were published online on Oct. Read more

Muscle cell boundaries: some assembly required

The worm C elegans gives insight into muscle cell assembly + architecture Read more

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University

Targeting metastasis through metabolism

Research from Adam Marcus’ and Mala Shanmugam’s labs was published Tuesday in Nature Communications – months after we wrote an article for Winship Cancer Institute’s magazine about it. So here it is again!

At your last visit to the dentist, you may have been given a mouth rinse with the antiseptic chlorhexidine. Available over the counter, chlorhexidine is also washed over the skin to prepare someone for surgery. Winship researchers are now looking at chlorhexidine and its chemical relative alexidine for another purpose: stopping cancer metastasis.

While the researchers don’t envision using chlorhexidine mouthwash as an anti-cancer measure directly, their findings suggest ways to combine other drugs, already in clinical trials, in ways that could deplete the cells needed for metastasis.

When used as an antiseptic, chlorhexidine is basically a detergent that blasts bacteria apart, scientists think. As leads for potential anti-cancer agents, chlorhexidine and its relatives appear to have a different effect. They interfere with mitochondria, the miniature power plants in our cells. Cancer cells trying to metastasize and invade other tissues seem to need their mitochondria more—especially the cells that are leading the way. Read more

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Update on pancreatic cancer: images and clinical trial

In 2018, Winship magazine had a feature story on pancreatic cancer. Our team developed an illustration that we hoped could convey the tumors’ complex structure, which contributes to making them difficult to treat. Oncologist Bassel El-Rayes described how the tumors recruit other cells to form a protective shell.

“If you look at a tumor from the pancreas, you will see small nests of cells embedded in scar tissue,” he says. “The cancer uses this scar tissue as a shield, to its own advantage.”

With El-Rayes and fellow oncologist Walid Shaib, Greg Lesinski’s lab recently published a paper in JCI Insight. The point of the paper was to look at how chemotherapy changes immune activity in the tumor microenvironment, but we also get vivid images giving us a glimpse of those nests. It helps to view these images as large as possible, so please check them out at the journal’s site, which has no paywall.

Regions stained green are tumor-rich; red regions are immune cell-rich, and blue regions are rich in stromal cells (stellate/fibroblast cells). The goal is to get immune cells to envelop the tumors more, like in square 8.

The 2018 magazine story also laid out some of Lesinski’s and El-Rayes’ ideas.

Based on his lab’s recent success in animal models, Lesinski thinks that combining an immunotherapy drug with agents that stop IL-6 could pry open pancreatic cancers’ protective shells. In those experiments, the combination resulted in fewer stellate cells and more T cells in the tumors. Fortunately, a couple of “off-the-shelf” options, drugs approved for rheumatoid arthritis, already exist for targeting IL-6, Lesinski says.

On that theme, we noticed that a clinical trial was posted on clinicaltrials.gov in December that implements those proposals: “Siltuximab and Spartalizumab in Patients With Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer”. El-Rayes is the principal investigator, and it is not yet recruiting. Siltuximab is an antibody against IL-6 and spartalizumab is a second generation PD-1 inhibitor.

Update: The XL888 + pembrolizumab study mentioned in the article is also moving along, presented by Mehmet Akce at the Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium.

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Beyond birthmarks and beta blockers, to cancer prevention

Ahead of this week’s Morningside Center conference on repurposing drugs, we wanted to highlight a recent paper in NPJ Precision Oncology by dermatologist Jack Arbiser. It may represent a new chapter in the story of the beta-blocker propranolol.

Infantile hemangioma (stock photo)

Several years ago, doctors in France accidentally discovered that propranolol is effective against hemangiomas: bright red birthmarks made of extra blood vessels, which appear in infancy. Hemangiomas often don’t need treatment and regress naturally, but some can lead to complications because they compromise other organs. Infants receiving propranolol require close monitoring to ensure that they do not suffer from side effects related to propranolol’s beta blocker activity, such as slower heart rate or low blood sugar.

Arbiser’s lab showed that only one of two mirror-image forms of propranolol is active against endothelial or hemangioma cells, but it is the inactive one, as far as being a beta-blocker. Many researchers were already looking at repurposing propranolol based on its anti-cancer properties. The insight could be a way to avoid beta-blocker side effects, even beyond hemangiomas to malignant tumors. Check out the Office of Technology Transfer’s feature on this topic. Read more

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Invasive cancer cells marked by distinctive mutations

What does it take to be a leader – of cancer cells?

Adam Marcus and colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute are back, with an analysis of mutations that drive metastatic behavior among groups of lung cancer cells. The findings were published this week on the cover of Journal of Cell Science, and suggest pharmacological strategies to intervene against or prevent metastasis.

Marcus and former graduate student Jessica Konen previously developed a technique for selectively labeling “leader” or “follower” lung cancer cells in culture, using lasers that turn a fluorescent protein from green to red. The leaders are more adventurous and invasive, but the followers support the leaders and help them survive. Check out our prize-winning video and their 2017 Nature Communications paper.

The magenta cells have leader-specific mutated Arp3 protein, while the green cells are unmodified followers.

The new research harnesses their technique to track the mutations that are specific to leader or follower cells. It was a collaboration with the lab of Paula Vertino, formerly at Winship and now at University of Rochester. Cancer Biology graduate students Elizabeth Zoeller and Brian Pedro led the work, with sophisticated genomics from Ben Barwick.

One of the leader-specific mutations was in Arp3, part of a protein complex that promotes the protrusion of cellular blobs, facilitating migration. The researchers took the mutated Arp3 protein from leader cells and forced its production in follower cells. In the cover image, the magenta cells on the outside are the ones with the mutated Arp3 protein, while the green cells are unmodified. Read more

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Virus hunting season open

New viruses have been popping up in industrial water-cooling towers, in Antarctica and salty deserts. Erwin van Meir, from Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, and his collaborators managed to find two inside someone’s metastatic tumor.

Working with Terry Fei Fan Ng and Eric Delwart from UCSF, Van Meir identified two new species of anellovirus, a family of viruses first discovered in the 1990s. The new viruses come from a patient with a melanoma that had metastasized to the brain and was operated on at Emory University Hospital.

The results were recently published in Oncotarget.

“We have no evidence that these two viruses were involved in the tumor’s formation, but the data are proof of principle that the metagenomics method used can discover more unknown viruses in human brain tumors,” Van Meir says.

Erwin Van Meir, PhD

Metagenomics is the study of genetic material obtained directly from the environment. The approach is often used to study bacteria, but it is equally valid for viruses. In this paper, investigators used enzymes to chew up human and bacterial DNA, enriching for viral DNA protected by the viral capsid.

Estimates from the USAID’s PREDICT program point to thousands or even millions of viruses, present in mammals and birds, which remain unknown to humans. According to Annual Review of Virology from this summer, Viruses with Circular Single-Stranded DNA Genomes are Everywhere! – and that includes Anelloviridae, for which there is “still no convincing direct causal relation to any specific disease.”

Anelloviruses are relatively primitive in that they do not encode a viral polymerase (the enzyme that copies DNA) and thus need to rely upon the host cell and replicate inside the nucleus. The new ones were named Torque teno mini virus Emory1 (TTMV Emory1) and Torque teno mini virus Emory2 (TTMV Emory2). The research team gave a nod to Emory by using its colors in the virus genome cartoons accompanying the publication. Read more

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Cancer drug discovery: targeting DNA repair

Standard anticancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, target rapidly dividing cells by damaging their DNA. A newer strategy is to undercut cancer cells’ ability to repair DNA damage.

Radiation oncologist David Yu, MD, PhD

Winship Cancer Institute investigators led by David Yu, MD, PhD have identified a distinct function in DNA double strand break repair for an enzyme called SAMHD1. Depleting or inhibiting SAMHD1 could augment anticancer treatments that induce DNA double-strand breaks, such as ionizing radiation or PARP inhibitor drugs, they suggest. Ionizing radiation is a mainstay of cancer treatment and PARP inhibitors are being developed for several cancer types.

The findings were published this week in Cell Reports (open access).

SAMHD1 was known for its ability to chop up the building blocks of DNA, and had come to the attention of virologists because it limits the ability of retroviruses such as HIV to infect some cell types. The first author of the paper, postdoc Waaqo Daddacha, PhD, previously studied SAMHD1 with virologist Baek Kim, PhD, professor of pediatrics.

Cancer researchers had already sought to harness a retroviral protein called Vpx, which viruses evolved to disable SAMHD1. Acute myeloid leukemia cells use SAMHD1 to get rid of the drug cytarabine, so Vpx can sensitize AML to that drug. The Cell Reports paper shows that virus-like particles carrying Vpx could be deployed against other types of cancer, in combination with agents that induce DNA double-strand breaks. Read more

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To explain cancer biology, use metaphors

Using metaphors to explain biomedical concepts is our bread and butter. That’s why we were tickled to see a recent paper from Winship Cancer Institute bioethicist Rebecca Pentz and colleagues, titled:

Using Metaphors to Explain Molecular Testing to Cancer Patients

Pentz’s team systematically evaluated something that science writers and journalists try to do all the time (and not always well). And they did so with actual conversations between doctors and patients at Winship. The first author of the paper, published in The Oncologist, was medical student Ana Pinheiro.

The researchers studied 66 conversations with nine oncologists. In 25 of those conversations, patients reported that they were able to hear a metaphor. Here’s one example:

“We try to figure out what food makes this kind of cancer grow. For this cancer, the food was estrogen and progesterone. So we’re going to focus on blocking the hormones, because that way we starve the cancer of its food.”

The paper lists all 17 (bus driver, boss, switch, battery, circuit, broken light switch, gas pedal, key turning off an engine, key opening a lock, food for growth, satellite and antenna, interstate, alternate circuit, traffic jam, blueprint, room names, Florida citrus) and how they were used to explain eight cancer-related molecular testing terms.

When patients were asked about the helpfulness of a metaphor that was used, 85 percent of the time they demonstrated understanding and said it was helpful. So let the metaphors fly!

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Nutty stimulant revealed as anticancer tool

Arecoline — the stimulant component of areca nuts — has anticancer properties, researchers at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have discovered. The findings were published Thursday, November 17 in Molecular Cell.

areca-nut-and-arecoline

Areca nut and chemical structure of arecoline. From Wikimedia.

Areca nuts are chewed for their stimulant effects in many Asian countries, and evidence links the practice to the development of oral and esophageal cancer. Analogous to nicotine, arecoline was identified as an inhibitor of the enzyme ACAT1, which contributes to the metabolism-distorting Warburg effect in cancer cells.

Observers of health news have complained that coffee, as a widely cited example, is implicated in causing cancer one week and absolved the next. Arecoline is not another instance of the same trend, stresses senior author Jing Chen, PhD, professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute.

“This is just a proof of principle, showing that ACAT1 is a good anticancer target,” Chen says. “We view arecoline as a lead to other compounds that could be more potent and selective.”

Chen says that arecoline could be compared to arsenic, a form of which is used as a treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia, but is also linked to several types of cancer. Plus, arecoline’s cancer-promoting effects may be limited if it is not delivered or absorbed orally, he says. When arecoline first arose in a chemical screen, Chen says: “It sounded like a carcinogen to me. But it all depends on the dose and how it is taken into the body.” Read more

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Lung cancer cells go amoeboid

Cancer biologists Jessica Konen and Scott Wilkinson, in Adam Marcus’ lab, recently published a paper on the function of LKB1, a gene that is often mutated in lung cancer cells. [Number three behind K-ras and p53.]

Amoeboid

Mesenchymal shape is defined as having a length more than twice the width. Amoeboid looks more like the cell on the right: rounded up. Thanks to Jessica Konen for photo.

Konen and Marcus were featured in a prize-winning video that our team produced last year, which discusses how they developed a technique for isolating “leader cells” — lung cancer cells that migrate and invade more quickly — from a large group and studying those cells’ properties more intensively.

The Molecular Biology of the Cell paper covers a related topic: how LKB1 mutation affects cell shape. In particular, losing LKB1 converts lung cancer cells from a “mesenchymal” morphology to an “amoeboid” morphology.  Read more

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Chasing invasive cancer cells and more at #ASCB15

Earlier today, we posted a notice on Eurekalert for a Sunday, December 13 presentation by graduate student Jessica Konen at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting in San Diego.

Her research, performed with Adam Marcus at Winship Cancer Institute, was the topic of a video that recently won first prize in a contest sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges. This was our video team’s first use of the “fast hand on whiteboard” effect, and a lot of fun to make. The video’s strength grows out of the footage Konen and Marcus have of cancer cells migrating in culture. Check it out, if you haven’t already.

Poster presentations at the 2015 ASCB meeting can be found by searching this PDF. A few Emory-centric highlights:

*Chelsey Ruppersburg and Criss Hartzell’s work on the “nimbus”, a torus-shaped structure enriched in proteins needed to build the cell’s primary cilium

*Anita Corbett on how Emory students have a strong record of attaining their own NIH research funding

*Additional work by Adam Marcus’ lab on the tumor suppressor gene LKB1 and how its loss drives lung cancer cells to take on a “unique amoeboid morphology”

*Research from David Katz’s lab on the “epigenetic eraser” LSD1 (lysine-specific demethylase) and its function in neurons and neurodegeneration Read more

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