Unlocking a liver receptor puzzle

Biochemist Eric Ortlund and graduate student Suzanne Mays determined how potential diabetes drugs interact with their target, the protein Read more

Insane in the membrane - inflamed in the brain

Green and red fluorescent cells allow the visualization of brain inflammation in status Read more

Flow mediated dilation

Demonstration of flow-mediated dilation, a test of endothelial function. Impaired endothelial function is an early stage in the process of Read more

Yerkes National Primate Research Center

Oxytocin receptor levels predict comforting behavior in prairie voles

Different levels of a receptor for a hormone involved in social bonding may explain individual variation in offering comfort during stressful situations. Like humans, animals console each other in times of distress: monkeys hug and kiss, and prairie voles groom each other.

James Burkett, PhD

James Burkett, PhD

Emory postdoc James Burkett described his research on voles at a press conference on “The Neuroscience of Emotion and Social Behavior” at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego on Sunday. Here are Video (Burkett’s part is roughly from 4:50 to 9:00) and the scientific abstract.

Burkett’s presentation, on oxytocin-dependent comforting behavior in prairie voles, outlined an extension of his graduate work with Larry Young at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, which was published in Science in January 2016 and impressed oxytocin skeptic Ed Yong. Burkett, now in Gary Miller’s laboratory at Rollins School of Public Health, also masterminded a Reddit “Ask me anything” in February.

The rest of the Society for Neuroscience press release:

Previous research indicates oxytocin—a hormone that promotes social and maternal bonding—acts in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the prairie vole brain to encourage consoling behavior. In humans, the ACC activates when people see others in pain. Some degree of personal distress motivates comforting behaviors, but too much actually makes animals (including humans, chimpanzees, and rats) less likely to offer comfort.

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SIV remission follow-up

The surprising finding that an antibody treatment can push SIV-infected monkeys into prolonged remission, even after antiviral drugs are stopped, continues to rumble across the internet.

siv-a4b7-teaser-copy

Blue circles show how viral levels stayed low even after antiretroviral drugs were stopped.

The Science paper was featured on NIH director Francis Collins’ blog this week. NIAID director Anthony Fauci has been giving presentations on the research, which emerged from a collaboration from his lab and Tab Ansari’s at Emory. Fauci’s talk at the recent HIV prevention meeting in Chicago is viewable here.

At Lab Land, we were pleased to see that the watchdogs at Treatment Action Group had this to say:

“Media coverage of the paper has generally been accurate, but has had to wrestle with the uncertainty that exists among scientists regarding how ART-free control of viral load should be described.”

HIV pioneer Robert Gallo noted in an article accompanying the Science paper that the anti-integrin antibody treatment represents an emerging alternative to the vaunted “shock and kill” strategy, which he termed “soothe and snooze.” Note to reporters: the upcoming “Strategies for an HIV cure” conference at NIH in mid-November might be a good chance to compare the different strategies and put them in perspective.

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Vaccine vs many common cold viruses achievable

Scientists are making the case that a vaccine against rhinoviruses, the predominant cause of the common cold, is achievable.

The quest for a vaccine against rhinoviruses may have seemed quixotic, because there are more than 100 varieties circulating around the world. Even so, the immune system can handle the challenge, researchers from Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta say.

Martin Moore, PhD

Martin Moore, PhD

Vaccines that combine dozens of varieties of rhinovirus at once are effective in stimulating antiviral antibodies in mice and monkeys, the researchers report in Nature Communications. The paper was also posted on Biorxiv before publication.

“We think that creating a vaccine for the common cold can be reduced to technical challenges related to manufacturing,” says Martin Moore, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Read more

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HD monkeys display full spectrum of symptoms seen in humans

Transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys display a full spectrum of symptoms resembling the human disease, ranging from motor problems and neurodegeneration to emotional dysregulation and immune system changes, scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University report.

The results, published online in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, strengthen the case that transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys could be used to evaluate emerging treatments (such as this) before launching human clinical trials.

“Identifying emotional and immune symptoms in the HD monkeys, along with previous studies demonstrating their cognitive deficits and fine motor problems, suggest the HD monkey model embodies the full array of symptoms similar to human patients with the disease,” says Yerkes research associate Jessica Raper, PhD, lead author of the paper. Read more

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The cure word, as applied to HIV

HIV researchers are becoming increasingly bold about using the “cure” word in reference to HIV/AIDS, even though nobody has been cured besides the “Berlin patient,” Timothy Brown, who had a fortuitous combination of hematopoetic stem cell transplant from a genetically HIV-resistant donor. Sometimes researchers use the term “functional cure,” meaning under control without drugs, to be distinct from “sterilizing cure” or “eradication,” meaning the virus is gone from the body. A substantial obstacle is that HIV integrates into the DNA of some white blood cells.

HIV cure research is part of the $35.6 million, five-year grant recently awarded by the National Institutes of Health to Yerkes/Emory Vaccine Center/Emory Center for AIDS Research. Using the “shock and kill” approach during antiviral drug therapy, researchers will force HIV (or its stand-in in non-human primate research, SIV) to come out of hiding from its reservoirs in the body. The team plans to test novel “latency reversing agents” and then combine the best one with immunotherapeutic drugs, such as PD-1 blockers, and therapeutic vaccines.

The NIH also recently announced a cluster of six HIV cure-oriented grants, named for activist Martin Delaney, to teams led from George Washington University, University of California, San Francisco, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and University of North Carolina. Skimming through the other teams’ research plans, it’s interesting to see the varying degrees of emphasis on “shock and kill”/HIV latency, enhancing the immune response, hematopoetic stem cell transplant/adoptive transfer and gene editing weaponry vs HIV itself.

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Manipulating motivation in mice

Emory researchers have identified molecular mechanisms that regulate motivation and persistence in mice. Their findings could have implications for intervention in conditions characterized by behavioral inflexibility, such as drug abuse and depression.

Scientists showed that by manipulating a particular growth factor in one region of the brain, they could tune up or down a mouse’s tendency to persist in seeking a reward. In humans, this region of the brain is located just behind the eyes and is called the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.

“When we make decisions, we often need to gauge the value of a reward before we can see it — for example, will lunch at a certain restaurant be better than lunch at another, or worth the cost,” says Shannon Gourley, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine. “We think the mOFC is important for calculating value, particularly when we have to imagine the reward, as opposed to having it right in front of us.”

The results were published Wednesday in Journal of Neuroscience.

Shannon Gourley, PhD

Being able to appropriately determine the value of a perceived reward is critical in goal-directed decision making, a component of drug-seeking and addiction-related behaviors. While scientists already suspected that the medial orbitofrontal cortex was important for this type of learning and decision-making, the specific genes and growth factors were not as well-understood.

The researchers focused on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the survival and growth of neurons in the brain. BDNF is known to play key roles in long-term potentiation and neuronal remodeling, both important in learning and memory tasks. Variations in the human gene that encodes BDNF have been linked with several psychiatric disorders.

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Starvation signals control intestinal inflammation in mice

Intestinal inflammation in mice can be dampened by giving them a diet restricted in amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, researchers have found. The results were published online by Nature on Wednesday, March 16.

The findings highlight an ancient connection between nutrient availability and control of inflammation. They also suggest that a low protein diet — or drugs that mimic its effects on immune cells — could be tools for the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

The research team, led by Emory Vaccine Center immunologist Bali Pulendran, discovered that mice lacking the amino acid sensor GCN2 are more sensitive to the chemical irritant DSS (dextran sodium sulfate), often used to model colitis in animals. This line of research grew out of the discovery by Pulendran and colleagues that GCN2 is pivotal for induction of immunity to the yellow fever vaccine.

“It is well known that the immune system can detect and respond to pathogens, but these results highlight its capacity to sense and adapt to environmental changes, such as nutritional starvation, which cause cellular stress,” he says.

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‘Mountain of data’ on flu vaccine responses

Bali Pulendran’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center teamed up with UCSD researchers and recently published a huge analysis of immune responses after seasonal flu vaccination (Immunity is making it available free this week, no subscription needed). Hundreds of volunteers at the Vaccine Center’s Hope Clinic took part in this study.

Note — this study looked at antibody responses to flu vaccines, but didn’t assess protection: whether study participants actually became sick with flu or not.

Our write-up is here. Immunity’s preview, from the Karolinska Institute’s Petter Brodin, is here, Cell Press’s press release is here.

Three points we wanted to call attention to:

*Long-lasting antibodies A surprising finding was how the “molecular signatures” that predict the strength of the immune response a few weeks after vaccination did not predict how long anti-flu antibodies stayed around. Instead, a separate set of signatures predicted the durability of antibody levels.

These distinct signatures may be connected with how plasma cells, responsible for antibody production, need to find homes in the bone marrow. That sounds like the process highlighted by Eun-Hyung Lee and colleagues in an Immunity paper published in July. In bone marrow samples from middle-aged volunteers, her team had found antibody-secreting cells that survive from childhood infections.

*Interfering (?) activation of NK cells/monocytes in elderly While the researchers found people older than 65 tended to have weaker antibody responses to vaccination, there were common elements of molecular signatures that predicted strong antibody responses in younger and older volunteers. However, elderly volunteers tended to have stronger signatures from immune cells that are not directly involved in producing antibodies (monocytes and ‘natural killer’ cells), both at baseline and after vaccination.

From the discussion: “This indicates a potential connection between the baseline state of the immune system in the elderly and reduced responsiveness to vaccination.” Additional comments on this from Shane Crotty in Brad Fikes’ article for the Union Tribune.

*The mountain of data from this and similar studies is available for use by other researchers on the web site ImmPort.

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Graft vs host? Target the aurora

 

Graft-vs-host disease is a common and potentially deadly complication following bone marrow transplants, in which immune cells from the donated bone marrow attack the recipient’s body.

Winship Cancer Institute’s Ned Waller and researchers from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Yerkes National Primate Research Center were part of a recent Science Translational Medicine paper that draws a bright red circle around aurora kinase A as a likely drug target in graft-vs-host disease.

Aurora kinases are enzymes that control mitosis, the process of cell division, and were first discovered in the 1990s in yeast, flies and frogs. Now drugs that inhibit aurora kinase A are in clinical trials for several types of cancer, and clinicans are planning to examine whether the same type of drugs could help with graft-vs-host disease.

Leslie Kean, a pediatric cancer specialist at Seattle Children’s who was at Emory until 2013, is the senior author of the STM paper. Seattle Childrens’ press release says that Kean wears a bracelet around her badge from a pediatric patient cured of leukemia one year ago, but who is still in the hospital due to complications from graft-vs-host. Read more

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Everything in moderation, especially TH17 cells

I was struck by one part of Mirko Paiardini’s paper that was published this week in Journal of Clinical Investigation. It describes a treatment aimed at repairing immune function in SIV-infected monkeys, with an eye toward helping people with HIV one day. One of the goals of their IL-21 treatment is to restore intestinal Th17 cells, which are depleted by viral infection. In this context, IL-21’s effect is anti-inflammatory.

However, Th17 cells are also involved in autoimmune disease. A recent Cell Metabolism paper from endocrinologist Roberto Pacifici and colleagues examines Th17 cells, with the goal of treating bone loss coming from an overactive parathyroid. In that situation, too many Th17 cells are bad and they need to be beaten back. Fortunately, both an inexpensive blood pressure medication and a drug under development for psoriasis seem to do just that.

Note for microbiome fans: connections between Th17 cells and intestinal microbes (segmented filamentous bacteria) are strengthening. It gets complicated because gut microbiota, together with Th17 cells, may influence metabolic disease and Th17-like cells are also in the skin — location matters.

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