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

inflammation

Dissecting atherosclerosis at the single cell level: tasting each piece of a fruit salad

More than a decade ago, Hanjoong Jo and colleagues developed an elegant animal model allowing the dissection of atherosclerosis. It was the first to definitively show that disturbed patterns of blood flow determine where atherosclerotic plaques will later appear.

In atherosclerosis, arterial walls thicken and harden because of a gradual build-up of lipids, cholesterol and white blood cells, which occurs over the course of years in humans. The Jo lab’s model involves restricting blood flow in the carotid artery of mice, which are fed a high-fat diet and also have mutations in a gene (ApoE) involved in processing fat and cholesterol. The physical intervention causes atherosclerosis to appear within a couple weeks. Inflammation in endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, is visible within 48 hours.

The shear-sensitive gene LMO4 is turned on in the middle boxed region, but not the other two, because of disturbed flow in that area of the aorta

Now Jo’s lab has combined the model with recently developed techniques that permit scientists to see molecular changes in single cells. The results were published Tuesday in Cell Reports.

Jo’s lab is in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory and Georgia Tech.

Previously, when they saw inflammation in blood vessels, researchers could not distinguish between intrinsic changes in endothelial cells and immune or other cells infiltrating into the blood vessel lining.

A video made by Harvard scientists who developed the single cell techniques describes the difference like this. Looking at the molecules in cells with standard techniques is like making a fruit smoothie – everything is blended together. But single cell techniques allow them to taste and evaluate each piece of fruit individually.

Read more

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Repurposing a rheumatoid arthritis drug for COVID-19

For COVID-19, many researchers around the world have tried to repurpose drugs for other indications, often unsuccessfully. New clinical trial results show that baricitinib, developed by Eli Lilly and approved for rheumatoid arthritis, can speed recovery and may reduce mortality in some groups of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

How did this study, sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, come together? In part, through decade-long groundwork laid by investigators at Emory, and their collaborations with others.

The ACTT-2 results were recently published in New England Journal of Medicine. (More formal NIAID and Emory press releases are here and here.)

For several years, drug hunter and virologist Raymond Schinazi and his team had been investigating a class of medications called JAK inhibitors, as an option for tamping down chronic inflammation in HIV infection. Schinazi was one of the first at Emory to investigate the use of anti-inflammatory agents for herpesviruses and HIV in combination with antiviral drugs. He believed that these viruses “hit and run,” leaving behind inflammation, even if they later go into hiding and seem to disappear.

In Schinazi’s lab, Christina Gavegnano had shown that JAK inhibitors had both anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties in the context of HIV — a project she started as a graduate student in 2010. JAK refers to Janus kinases, which regulate inflammatory signals in immune cells.

 “Our team was working on this for 10 years for HIV,” Gavegnano says. “There was a huge amount of data that we garnered, showing how this drug class works on chronic inflammation and why.” 

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Baricitinib effectively reduces COVID-19 lung inflammation in NHP model

In the race to halt the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University share two important findings from their latest peer-reviewed, published study in Cell.

Rhesus monkeys are a valid animal model for COVID-19 studies because the way they experience and respond to the virus has comparable similarities to the way the virus affects humans, the researchers say. And baricitinib, an anti-inflammatory medication that is FDA-approved for rheumatoid arthritis, is remarkably effective in reducing the lung inflammation COVID-19 causes when the medication is started early after infection.

The study results have immediate and important implications for treating patients with COVID-19. Baricitinib will be compared against the steroid dexamethasone in a NIAID-sponsored clinical trial called ACTT-4 (Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial), which started in November.

Mirko Paiardini, PhD, a researcher in Yerkes’ Microbiology and Immunology division, and his team selected rhesus macaques as the animal model because they expected the monkeys would mimic the disease course in humans, including the virus traveling to the upper and lower airways, and causing high levels of inflammation in the lungs. The team randomized eight rhesus macaques into two groups – a control and a treatment group; the animals in the treatment group received baricitinib.

“Our results showed the medication reduced inflammation, decreased inflammatory cells in the lungs and, ultimately, limited the virus’ internal path of destruction,” Paiardini says. “Remarkably, the animals we treated with baricitinib rapidly suppressed the processes responsible for inducing lung inflammation, thus elevating baricitinib for consideration as a frontline treatment for COVID-19 and providing insights on the way the drug works and its effectiveness.”

The FDA recently granted baricitinib emergency use authorization in combination with remdesivir based on the results of the ACTT-2 findings. “Our study was under way concurrently and, now, solidifies the importance of baricitinib in treating COVID-19,” Paiardini adds.

Co-senior author Raymond Schinazi, PhD, DSc, inventor of the most commonly used HIV/AIDS drugs to prevent progression of the disease and death, says: “Our study shows the mechanisms of action are consistent across studies with monkeys and clinical trials with humans. This means the nonhuman primate model can provide enough therapeutic insights to properly test anti-inflammatory and other COVID-19 therapies for safety and effectiveness.”

Schinazi is the Frances Winship Walters Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and is affiliated with Yerkes.

“Ray and his group have been investigating the potential of anti-inflammatory drugs, such as baricitinib, for years in the context of another infection, HIV, in which inflammation is a key cause of sickness and death,” Paiardini says. “Our laboratories have collaborated for years to test therapeutics in the nonhuman primate model of HIV infection, thus placing us in a unique position when COVID-19 hit the U.S. to focus our combined expertise and efforts to halt the virus. It took only a phone call between the two of us to switch gears, begin work to create a reliable and robust monkey model of COVID-19 at Yerkes and test the potential of drugs to block inflammation.”

Tim Hoang, first author and Emory doctoral student in the Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis Program, says: “It was exciting to be at the forefront of the response to COVID-19 and to be part of this research team that involved collaboration from Yerkes and Emory infectious disease experts, geneticists, chemists, pathologists and veterinarians.”

Co-first author and Emory postdoctoral fellow Maria Pino, PhD, emphasizes: “We knew Yerkes was uniquely suited to conduct this study because of the research and veterinary expertise, specialized facilities and animal colony, and our team’s commitment to providing better treatment options for people who have COVID-19.”

The research team plans to conduct further studies to better understand the inflammation the virus causes and to develop more targeted approached to mitigate the damage COVID-19 leaves behind.

Steven Bosinger, PhD, co-senior author, and his research team conducted the genomic analyses that helped unravel the process by which baricitinib reduces inflammation. “One of the most exciting aspects of this project was the speed genomics brought to the collaborative research,” says Bosinger. “Eight months ago, we began using genomics to accelerate the drug screening process in order to identify treatable, molecular signatures of disease between humans and model organisms, such as the monkeys in this study, In addition to determining the effectiveness of baricitinib, this study highlights Emory researchers’ commitment to improving human health and, in this case, saving human lives.”

Bosinger is assistant professor, Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, Emory School of Medicine (SOM) and Emory Vaccine Center (EVC); director, Yerkes Nonhuman Primate Genomics Core and a researcher in Yerkes’ Division of Microbiology and Immunology. 

Some of the others on the Emory research team include: Arun Boddapati (co-first author), Elise Viox, Thomas Vanderford, PhD, Rebecca Levit, MD, Rafick Sékaly, PhD, Susan Ribeiro, PhD, Guido Silvestri, MD, Anne Piantadosi, MD, PhD, Sanjeev Gumber, BVSc, MVSc, PhD, DACVP, Sherrie Jean, DVM, DACLAM, and Jenny Wood, DVM, DACLAM. Jacob Estes, PhD, at Oregon Health & Science University also collaborated.

Paiardini says, “So many colleagues had a key role in this study. First authors Tim and Maria as well as Yerkes veterinary and animal care personnel who worked non-stop for months on this project. This truly has been a collaborative effort at Emory University to help improve lives worldwide.”

This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, Emory University’s COVID-19 Molecules and Pathogens to Populations and Pandemics Initiative Seed Grant, Yerkes’ base grant, which included support for the center’s Coronavirus Pilot Research Project grants, and Fast Grants.

Grant amounts (direct + indirect) are:

NIH R37AI141258, $836,452/yr (2018-23)

NIH R01AI116379, $783,714/yr (2015-20 + 2021 NCE)

NIH P51 OD011132, $10,540,602/yr (2016-20)

U24 AI120134 $681,214/yr (2020-2025)

S10OD026799 $985,030/yr (2019-2020)

Emory University COVID-19 Molecules and Pathogens to Populations and Pandemics Initiative Seed Grant, $150,000/1 yr

Fast Grants #2144, $100,000/1 yr

Note: Only a portion of the NIH grant funding was applied to the study reported in this news release. 

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Peeling away pancreatic cancers’ defenses

At Winship Cancer Institute, pancreatic cancer researcher Greg Lesinski and colleagues have a new paper in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. It’s about a combination immunotherapy approach that gets through pancreatic cancers’ extra defenses, and it represents the preclinical counterpart to a clinical trial that is underway and almost finished at Winship, under the direction of GI oncologist Bassel El-Rayes.

Immunotherapies have transformed how other forms of cancer are treated, but for pancreatic cancers, an obstacle is getting through the dense layers of cellular shielding that the cancers build around themselves. Pancreatic cancers create “nests” of fibrotic stellate cells that pump out inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6.

Pancreatic cancer is anticipated to become the second deadliest cancer in the United States by 2030, surpassing breast and colon cancer. 

“Inflammation and a good immune response don’t always go hand in hand,” El-Rayes told us, for a 2018 Winship magazine article. “High IL-6 causes immune exhaustion, and keeps the good cells out of the tumor.”

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Tweaks to corticosteroids may reduce side effects

Steroid anti-inflammatory drugs such as dexamethasone and prednisone are widely used to treat conditions such as allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, cancer – and now, COVID-19. Yet they can have harmful side effects on the skin, bones and metabolism.

The side effects are thought to come from a molecular mechanism that is separate from the anti-inflammatory one, and scientists have envisioned that it may be possible to divide the two. A new paper in PNAS from Emory biochemist Eric Ortlund’s lab sketches out how one potential alternative may work.

Synthetic corticosteroids mimic the action of the stress hormone cortisol; both bind the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) protein. Ortlund’s group obtained structural information on how vamorolone, an experimental drug, sticks to the part of GR that binds hormones.

The American company ReveraGen and Swiss partner Santhera are developing vamorolone for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but it is possible to envision several other conditions such as ulcerative colitis for which vamorolone or a similar drug could be helpful. Vamorolone is NOT approved by the FDA for Duchenne muscular dystrophy or any other indication.

As far as its interaction with GR, what sets vamorolone apart from conventional corticosteroids is quite subtle: a missing hydrogen bond. This means that GR doesn’t interact as well with various partner proteins, which are needed to turn on genes involved in processes such as metabolism and bone growth.  However, the anti-inflammatory effects result mainly from turning inflammatory and immune system genes off, and those interactions are maintained. More on that distinction here and here.

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SARS-CoV-2 culture system using human airway cells

Journalist Roxanne Khamsi had an item in Wired highlighting how virologists studying SARS-CoV-2 and its relatives have relied on Vero cells, monkey kidney cells with deficient antiviral responses.

Vero cells are easy to culture and infect with viruses, so they are a standard laboratory workhorse. Unfortunately, they may have given people the wrong idea about the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine, Khamsi writes.

In contrast, Emory virologist Mehul Suthar’s team recently published a Journal of Virology paper on culturing SARS-CoV-2 in primary human airway epithelial cells, which are closer to the cells that the coronavirus actually infects “out on the street.”

Effect of interferon-beta on SARS-CoV-2 in primary human epithelial airway cells. Green = SARS-CoV-2, Red = F-actin, Blue = Hoechst (DNA). Courtesy of Abigail Vanderheiden

The Emory researchers found that airway cells are permissive to SARS-CoV-2 infection, but mount a weak antiviral response lacking certain interferons (type I and type III). Interferons are cytokines, part of the immune system’s response to viral infection. They were originally named for their ability to interfere with viral replication, but they also rouse immune cells and bolster cellular defenses.

In SARS-CoV-2 infection, the “misdirected” innate immune response is dominated instead by inflammatory and fibrosis-promoting cytokines, something others have observed as well.

“Early administration of type I or III IFN could potentially decrease virus replication and disease,” the authors conclude. We note that an NIH-supported clinical trial testing a type I interferon (along with remdesivir) for COVID-19 just started.

The first author of the paper is IMP graduate student Abigail Vanderheiden. As with a lot of recent SARS-CoV-2 work, this project included contributions from several labs at Emory: Arash Grakoui’s, Steve Bosinger’s, Larry Anderson’s, and Anice Lowen’s, along with help from University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

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Anti-inflammatory approach suppresses cancer metastasis in animal models

An anti-inflammatory drug called ketorolac, given before surgery, can promote long-term survival in animal models of cancer metastasis, a team of scientists has found. The research suggests that flanking chemotherapy with ketorolac or similar drugs — an approach that is distinct from previous anti-inflammatory cancer prevention efforts — can unleash anti-tumor immunity.

The findings, published in Journal of Clinical Investigation, also provide a mechanistic explanation for the anti-metastatic effects of ketorolac, previously observed in human breast cancer surgery.

Medical writer Ralph Moss has a great summary of this background. A commentary accompanying the JCI paper concludes: ” If this can be translated from mouse models into the clinic, then it could revolutionize treatments.”

Vikas P. Sukhatme, MD, ScD, dean of Emory University School of Medicine, is senior author of the JCI paper. He was previously at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, with lead authors Dipak Panigrahy, MD and Allison Gartung, PhD.

“Collectively, our findings suggest a potential paradigm shift in our approach to resectable cancers,” says Sukhatme. “Clinical trials are now urgently needed to validate these animal studies.”

Most cancer-related deaths come from metastases, the spread of cancer cells from a primary tumor to surrounding tissues or distant organs. The cells that seed metastases are often in microscopic clusters – a surgeon can’t see them. Chemotherapy, typically given after or prior to surgery is aimed at eradicating these cancer cells in the hopes of preventing cancer recurrence.  However, chemotherapy can sometimes stir up inflammation, promoting metastasis.

“Cancer therapy is a double-edged sword,” says Panigrahy. “Surgery and chemotherapy can induce an inflammatory or immunosuppressive injury response that promotes dormant metastatic cells to start proliferating, leading to tumor recurrence.”

Ketorolac is an inexpensive NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug). Because of concern over side effects, it is only approved by the FDA for short-term pain management “at the opioid level.” It differs from other NSAIDs in that it preferentially inhibits the enzyme COX-1, more than COX-2. Other studies of prevention of cancer recurrence have focused on COX-2 inhibitors. Read more

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Inflammation in PD hits the gut

Several groups studying Parkinson’s have had a hunch – a gut feeling, even – that intestinal inflammation is involved in driving the disease. Now Emory researchers led by Malu Tansey, PhD have some evidence from patient samples to back it up, published in the journal Movement Disorders.

IMP graduate student Madelyn Houser

German pathologist Heiko Braak has been honored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research for his theory, originally published in 2003, proposing that disease pathology – marked by aggregation of the toxic protein alpha-synuclein — may begin in the gastrointestinal tract and migrate from there to the central nervous system. This proposal was both provocative and influential in the Parkinson’s disease (PD) field. And Tansey herself has long been interested in the role of microglia, the immune cells resident in the brain, in PD.

The first author of the new paper, Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis graduate student Madelyn Houser, notes that digestive problems such as constipation are frequently reported in PD patients. But what is the cause and what is effect? As neurologist Stewart Factor observed for a Emory Medicine article on PD’s non-motor symptoms: “A patient might tell me he’s had recurring constipation for 10 years, but he wouldn’t say anything to a neurologist about it until he starts having other symptoms.” Read more

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Calming an electrical storm in the heart

AT = anterior tubercle of C6, C = carotid artery, LC = longus colli muscle, T = thyroid gland, IJ = internal jugular vein, compressed

The most recent issue of Emory Medicine features a story that first came to Lab Land’s attention when it was presented as an abstract at the 2017 American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions meeting.

Emory doctors were challenged by a patient who repeatedly developed cardiac arrhythmias, called “refractory electrical storm.” They used a local anesthesia procedure called stellate ganglion block — normally used for complex pain — to calm the storm. Cardiac electrophysiologist Michael Lloyd, who likes solving puzzles, was the one who decided to try it.

Emory anesthesiologist Boris Spektor provided this ultrasound picture of the procedure. Stellate ganglion block is also being tested for conditions such as PTSD. Please read the whole story!

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Skin disease studies go deep: depression/inflammation insight

The placebo effect plays a big role in clinical trials for mood disorders such as depression. Emory psychiatrist Andy Miller hit upon something several years ago that could clear a path around the placebo effect.

Miller and his colleagues have been looking at the connection between inflammation and depression, whose evolutionary dimensions we have previously explored. They’ve examined the ability of inflammation-inducing treatments for hepatitis C and cancer to trigger symptoms of depression, and have shown that the anti-inflammatory drug infliximab (mainly used for rheumatoid arthritis) can resolve some cases of treatment-resistant depression. [Lots of praise for Miller in this September 2017 Nature Medicine feature.]

A recent paper in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics from Miller and psychiatry chair Mark Rapaport looks at clinical trials testing an anti-inflammatory drug against psoriasis, to see whether participants’ depressive symptoms improved. This sidesteps a situation where doctors’ main targets are the patients’ moods.

When it comes to approving new antidepressants, the FDA is still probably going to want a frontal assault on depression, despite provisions in the 21st Century Cures Act to broaden the types of admissible evidence.

“These studies emphasize how difficult it is to interpret findings when these drugs are treating more than one problem,” Miller says. “Better to have a simpler study with just depression.”

Still, this line of research could clarify who could benefit from anti-inflammatory treatments and illuminate viable biomarkers and pathways. Two studies now underway at Emory specifically recruit patients with high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP, which Miller’s previous study showed was helpful in predicting response to infliximab.

The new paper results from a collaboration with Eli Lilly. Lilly’s ixekizumab (commercial name: Taltz) is an antibody against the cytokine IL-17A, used to treat moderate to severe psoriasis. Taltz was approved by the FDA in 2016, after clinical trials published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Read more

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