Brain organoid model shows molecular signs of Alzheimer’s before birth

In a model of human fetal brain development, Emory researchers can see perturbations of epigenetic markers in cells derived from people with familial early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which takes decades to appear. This suggests that in people who inherit mutations linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s, it would be possible to detect molecular changes in their brains before birth. The results were published in the journal Cell Reports. “The beauty of using organoids is that they allow us to Read more

The earliest spot for Alzheimer's blues

How the most common genetic risk factor in AD interacts with the earliest site of neurodegeneration Read more

Make ‘em fight: redirecting neutrophils in CF

Why do people with cystic fibrosis (CF) have such trouble with lung infections? The conventional view is that people with CF are at greater risk for lung infections because thick, sticky mucus builds up in their lungs, allowing bacteria to thrive. CF is caused by a mutation that affects the composition of the mucus. Rabindra Tirouvanziam, an immunologist at Emory, says a better question is: what type of cell is supposed to be fighting the Read more

cancer

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

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

Anticancer drug strategy: making cells choke on copper

What do cancer cells have in common with horseshoe crabs and Mr. Spock from Star Trek?

They all depend upon copper. Horseshoe crabs have blue blood because they use copper to transport oxygen in their blood instead of iron (hemocyanin vs hemoglobin). Vulcans’ blood was supposed to be green, for the same reason.

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

Horseshoe crabs and Vulcans use copper to transport oxygen in their blood. Cancer cells seem to need the metal more than other cells.

To be sure, all our cells need copper. Many human enzymes use the metal to catalyze important reactions, but cancer cells seem to need it more than healthy cells. Manipulating the body’s flow of copper is emerging as an anticancer drug strategy.

A team of scientists from University of Chicago, Emory and Shanghai have developed compounds that interfere with copper transport inside cells. These compounds inhibit the growth of several types of cancer cells, with minimal effects on the growth of non-cancerous cells, the researchers report in Nature Chemistry.

“We’re taking a tactic that’s different from other approaches. These compounds actually cause copper to accumulate inside cells,” says co-senior author Jing Chen, PhD, professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute. Read more

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Orange lichens are source for potential anticancer drug

An orange pigment found in lichens and rhubarb called parietin may have potential as an anti-cancer drug, scientists at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have discovered.

The results were published in Nature Cell Biology on October 19.

Caloplaca_Fenwick

Parietin, shown to have anticancer activity in the laboratory, is a dominant pigment in Caloplaca lichens. Note: this study did not assess the effects of eating lichens or rhubarb. Photo courtesy of www.aphotofungi.com

Parietin, also known as physcion, could slow the growth of and kill human leukemia cells obtained directly from patients, without obvious toxicity to human blood cells, the authors report. The pigment could also inhibit the growth of human cancer cell lines, derived from lung and head and neck tumors, when grafted into mice.

A team of researchers led by Jing Chen, PhD, discovered the properties of parietin because they were looking for inhibitors for the metabolic enzyme 6PGD (6-phosphogluconate dehydrogenase). 6PGD is part of the pentose phosphate pathway, which supplies cellular building blocks for rapid growth. Researchers have already found 6PGD enzyme activity increased in several types of cancer cells.

“This is part of the Warburg effect, the distortion of cancer cells’ metabolism,” says Chen, professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute. “We found that 6PGD is an important metabolic branch point in several types of cancer cells.” Read more

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Adaptive mutation mechanism may drive some forms of antibiotic resistance

Evolutionary theory says mutations are blind and occur randomly. But in the controversial phenomenon of adaptive mutation, cells can peek under the blindfold, increasing their mutation rate in response to stress.

Scientists at Winship Cancer Institute, Emory University have observed that an apparent “back channel” for genetic information called retromutagenesis can encourage adaptive mutation to take place in bacteria.

The results were published Tuesday, August 25 in PLOS Genetics.

“This mechanism may explain how bacteria develop resistance to some types of antibiotics under selective pressure, as well as how mutations in cancer cells enable their growth or resistance to chemotherapy drugs,” says senior author Paul Doetsch, PhD.

Doetsch is professor of biochemistry, radiation oncology and hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and associate director of basic research at Winship Cancer Institute. The first author of the paper is Genetics and Molecular Biology graduate student Jordan Morreall, PhD, who defended his thesis in April.

Retromutagenesis resolves the puzzle: if cells aren’t growing because they’re under stress, which means their DNA isn’t being copied, how do the new mutants appear?

The answer: a mutation appears in the RNA first. Read more

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Immune ‘traffic jam’ from viral infection

Several drugs now used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases are actually repurposed tools derived from the immune system. One of the ways these “therapeutic antibodies” work is to grab onto malignant or inflammatory cells and escort them to their doom.

Emory researchers have found that in a mouse model of chronic viral infection, a kind of traffic pileup inside the body limits how effective therapeutic antibodies can be.

The results, published this week in Immunity, have implications for biotechnology researchers who continue to refine antibodies for therapeutic purposes, as well as bolster our understanding of how chronic viral infections impair the immune system.

Researchers led by Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Emory Vaccine Center, were studying mice infected by LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus). They injected several antibodies with the goal of removing various types of immune cells from the mice.  One end of the antibody molecule is supposed to bind the target cell, while another acts as a flag for other cells to get rid of the target cell.

However, during a chronic LCMV infection, the mouse’s immune system is producing its own antibodies against the virus, which form complexes with viral proteins. These immune complexes prevented the injected antibodies from having the effect the scientists wanted, which was to deplete their target cells.

Excessive amounts of immune complexes appear to be “clogging” the Fc gamma receptors that immune cells would use to grab the antibodies bound to the target cell, says postdoctoral fellow Andreas Wieland, PhD, first author of the Immunity paper. That these immune complexes form was not news; but how much they interfere with other antibodies was, Wieland says. Fc gamma receptors were already known to be important for antibodies to be effective against influenza and HIV. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Cancer’s shield: PD-1

Gina Kolata has a section front story in Tuesday’s New York Times exploring the potential of a relatively new class of anticancer drugs. The drugs break through “shields” built by cancers to ward off the threat posed by the patient’s immune system. Many are based on blocking PD-1, an immune regulatory molecule whose importance in chronic infections was first defined by Emory’s Rafi Ahmed.

Of course, not every cancer research development described as transformative in the New York Times lives up to the hype. But the clinical trial results, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, are solid enough that the researchers Kolata talks with think they are seeing “a moment in medical history when everything changed.” [Winship Cancer Institute’s John Kauh was a co-author on one of the 2012 NEJM papers.]

Let’s take a moment to examine some of the roots of this story. Rafi Ahmed didn’t set out to study cancer. For the last two decades, he and his colleagues have been studying T cells, parts of the immune system that are critical for responding to infections. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Immunology 2 Comments

The challenges of graduate school

Biochemist Paul Doetsch’s recent appearance in a Science magazine feature on laboratory leadership led to a conversation with him about the challenges of graduate school.

He emphasized that scientific research is a team sport, and brilliance on the part of the lab head may not yield fruit without a productive relationship with the people in the lab. Doetsch suggested talking with Lydia Morris, a graduate student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology graduate program. Morris has been working in Doetsch’s lab for several years and is about to complete her degree. She has been examining the in vivo distribution of DNA repair proteins.

In this video, Morris and Doetsch talk about the differences between turn-the-crank and blue-sky projects, and the importance of backup projects, communications, high expectations and perseverance.

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The body’s anticancer defenses come in a variety of sizes

Sometimes you have to look at the whole picture, big and small.

Sarah Cork, PhD

That was the lesson that emerged from Winship Cancer Institute researcher Erwin Van Meir’s laboratory, highlighted in a recent paper in Oncogene. Van Meir’s team has been studying vasculostatin, a secreted protein that inhibits blood vessel growth by tumors (hence the name). Vasculostatin was discovered by Balveen Kaur, now at Ohio State, while she was in Van Meir’s lab.

Van Meir and his colleagues originally began studying vasculostatin because it is a product of a gene that brain tumors somehow silence or get rid of, and studying the obstacles our bodies throws in cancer’s way may be a good way to learn how to fight it via modern medicine. Eventually, it could form the basis for a treatment to prevent a tumor from attracting new blood vessels.

Vasculostatin is somewhat unique because it is a secreted fragment of a membrane-bound protein, called BAI1. BAI1 has an apparently separate function as an “engulfment receptor,” allowing the recognition and internalization of dying cells.

Most of the secreted vasculostatin is around 40 kilodaltons in size, not 120 as previously thought.

Graduate student Sarah Cork discovered that most of the vasculostatin protein being produced by cells is actually much smaller than what had been originally discovered. She and Van Meir were surprised to find that the smaller, cleaved form of the protein still has potent anti-angiogenic activity.

The researchers were using a technique where a mixture of proteins is separated within a gel by electric current, transferred to a polymer sheet, and probed with antibodies. The large proteins appear at the top and the small proteins at the bottom.

“Previously, we had been running the gels for a long time to detect large protein fragments, so missed out on what was happening with small fragments which run off the gel,” Van Meir says. “We were only looking at the top of the
gel, when the smaller form of vasculostatin was actually much more
abundant as you can see on the picture of a gel run for a shorter time.”

More broadly, Van Meir says that the finding adds to understanding about BAI1’s dual function in the brain and how vasculostatin (big or small) might be used in anticancer therapy.

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Dye me anticancer yellow

Over the last few years, pathologist Keqiang Ye and his colleagues have displayed an uncanny talent for finding potentially useful medicinal compounds. Recently another example of this talent appeared in Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Keqiang Ye, PhD

Postdoctoral fellow Qi Qi is first author on the paper. Collaborators include Jeffrey Olson, Liya Wang, Hui Mao, Haian Fu, Suresh Ramalingam and Shi-Yong Sun at Emory and Paul Mischel at UCLA.

Qi and Ye were looking for compounds that could inhibit the growth of an especially aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma with deletion in the tumor suppressor gene PTEN. Tumors with this deletion do not respond to currently available targeted therapies.

The researchers found that acridine yellow G, a fluorescent dye used to stain microscope slides, can inhibit the growth of this tumor:

Oral administration of this compound evidently decreases the tumor volumes in both subcutaneous and intracranial models and elongates the life span of brain tumor inoculated nude mice. It also displays potent antitumor effect against human lung cancers. Moreover, it significantly decreases cell proliferation and enhances apoptosis in tumors…

Optimization of this compound by improving its potency through medicinal chemistry modification might warrant a novel anticancer drug for malignant human cancers.

Ye’s team observed that acridine yellow G appears not to be toxic in rodents. However, the acridine family of compounds tends to intercalate (insert itself) into DNA and can promote DNA damage, so more toxicology studies are needed. Other acridine family compounds such as quinacrine have been used to treat bacterial infections and as antiinflammatory agents, they note.

A paramecium stained with acridine orange, which shows anticancer activity for tumors containing PTEN mutations

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A twist on epigenetic therapy vs cancer

Epigenetic therapies against cancer have attracted considerable attention in recent years. But many of the drugs currently being studied as epigenetic anticancer therapies may have indiscriminate effects. A recent paper in Cancer Research from brain cancer researcher Erwin Van Meir’s laboratory highlights a different type of target within cancer cells that may be more selective. Postdoctoral fellow Dan Zhu is the first author of the paper.

Erwin Van Meir, PhD

The basic idea for epigenetic therapy is to focus on how cancer cells’ DNA is wrapped instead of the mutations in the DNA. Cancer cells often have aberrant patterns of methylation or chromatin modifications. Methylation is a punctuation-like modification of DNA that usually shuts genes off, and chromatin is the term describing DNA when it is clothed by proteins such as histones, a form of packaging that determines whether a gene is on or off.

In contrast to mutations that are hard-wired in the DNA, changes in cancer cells’ methylation or chromatin may be reversible with certain drug treatments. But a puzzle remains: if a drug wipes away methylation indiscriminately, that might turn on an oncogene just as much as it might restore a tumor suppressor gene.

The ability of an inhibitor of methylation to treat cancer may depend on cell type and context, explains chromatin/methylation expert and co-author Paula Vertino. She points out that one well-known methylation inhibitor, azacytidine (Vidaza), is a standard treatment for myelodysplastic syndrome, but the strategy of blanket-inhibition of methylation can’t be expected to work for all cancers. A similar challenge exists for agents that target histone acetylation in a global fashion.

Epigenetic therapies seek to modify how DNA is packaged in the cell.

Van Meir’s laboratory has been studying a tumor suppressor protein called BAI1 (brain angiogenesis inhibitor 1), which prevents tumor and blood vessel growth. BAI1 is produced by brain cells naturally, but is often silenced epigenetically in glioblastoma cells. His team found that azacytidine de-represses the BAI1 gene.

Methylation won’t turn a gene off without the help of a set of proteins that bind preferentially to methylated DNA. These proteins are what recognize the methylation state of a given gene and recruit repressive chromatin. Zhu and colleagues in Van Meir’s group found that one particular methyl-binding protein, MBD2, is overproduced in glioblastoma and is enriched on the BAI1 gene.

“Taken together, our results suggest that MBD2 overexpression during gliomagenesis may drive tumor growth by suppressing the anti-angiogenic activity of a key tumor suppressor. These findings have therapeutic implications since inhibiting MBD2 could offer a strategy to reactivate BAI1 and suppress glioma pathobiology,” the authors write.

By itself, MBD2 appears to be dispensable, since mice seem to be able to develop and survive without it. Not having it even seems to push back against tumor formation in the intestine, for example. Targeting MBD2 may represent an alternative way to steer away from cancer cells’ altered state.

Van Meir cautions: “We need to have a better understanding of all the genes that are turned on or off by silencing MBD2 in a given cancer before we can envision to use this approach for therapy.”

Vertino and Steven Hunter, both at Emory, are co-authors on the paper. The work was supported by grants from the NIH and the Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation and the Emory University Research Council.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer 1 Comment