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

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University

Fixing Humpty Dumpty in cancer cells

As Star Trek’s Spock once observed: “As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.”

The same is true inside human cells, explaining why Emory researchers’ recent accomplishment – finding a small-molecule compound that corrects a defective protein-protein interaction – is so significant for cancer research. It’s like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Xiulei Mo, Haian Fu and colleagues have identified what they call a “mutation-directed molecular glue”. The glue restores a regulatory circuit that when defective, is responsible for acceleration of colorectal and pancreatic cancer. The results are reported in Cell Chemical Biology.

Restoring protein-protein interactions disrupted by an oncogenic mutation is like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again

“It is very exciting, because this is a clear example of a protein-protein interaction stabilizer that can reactivate the lost function and reestablish tumor-suppressive activity,” says Fu, who is chair of Emory’s Pharmacology and Chemical Biology department and leader of Winship Cancer Institute’s Discovery & Developmental Therapeutics program.

Scientists are very good at finding inhibitors for enzymes that are overactive. But they have meager results as far as strengthening interactions that are weak or absent. There are existing examples of drugs that stabilize protein-protein interactions (transplant drugs rapamycin and cyclosporine), but they inhibit the function of the proteins they target, as intended.

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Another side to cancer immunotherapy? Emory scientists investigate intratumoral B cells

Immunotherapies have transformed the treatment of several types of cancer over the last decade. Yet they focus on reactivating one arm of the immune system: cytotoxic T cells, which sniff out and kill tumor cells.

In a new paper in Nature, scientists at Emory Vaccine Center and Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University (Winship) report on their detailed look at B cells’ presence inside tumors. B cells represent the other major arm of the adaptive immune system, besides T cells, and could offer opportunities for new treatments against some kinds of cancers.

“Intratumoral B cells are an area of growing interest, because several studies have now shown that they are associated with a better prognosis and longer survival,” says first author Andreas Wieland, PhD, an Instructor in Rafi Ahmed’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center. “However, nobody really knows what those B cells are specific for.”

Wieland, Ahmed and colleagues decided to concentrate on head and neck cancers that were positive for human papillomavirus (HPV), because the virus provided a defined set of tumor-associated antigens, facilitating the study of tumor-specific B cells across patients.

“Our findings open the door for harnessing this type of cancer-specific immunity in future immunotherapy applications,” says Nabil Saba, MD, director of the head and neck medical oncology program at Winship. “This has implications not just for HPV-related squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck, but for the broader field of immuno-oncology.”

The Emory Vaccine Center researchers worked with Saba and Winship surgeon Mihir Patel, MD to obtain samples of head and neck tumors removed from 43 patients.

“This has been a wonderful collaborative effort,” Patel adds. “We’re grateful to the patients whose tumor samples contributed to this study, and I’m looking forward to where this information takes us.”

Within HPV-positive tumors, researchers found an enrichment for B cells specific to HPV proteins, and a subset of these cells were actively secreting HPV-specific antibodies. In the tumors, they could see germinal center-like structures, resembling the regions within lymph nodes where B cells are “trained” during an immune response.

Orange represents tumor cells displaying the antigen p16, while green represents B cells, with the arrows indicating germinal center-like structures. Courtesy of Andreas Wieland.

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Seeing the value: prostate cancer imaging agent developed at Winship

A study from Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University has the potential to change how patients whose prostate cancer recurs after prostatectomy are treated. The study was featured in both the plenary session and press program of the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) Annual Meeting on Monday, October 26.

The Emory Molecular Prostate Imaging for Radiotherapy Enhancement, or EMPIRE-1 trial (NCT01666808), is the first randomized trial of men with prostate cancer with recurring cancer to show that treatment based on advanced molecular imaging can improve disease-free survival rates. The molecular imaging used in the study, the radiotracer fluciclovine (18F) PET, was invented and developed at Emory and Winship.

The phase II/III trial was led by Winship radiation oncologist and prostate cancer specialist Ashesh B. Jani, MD, MSEE, FASTRO, and Winship nuclear radiology specialist David M. Schuster, MD, FACR. The trial enrolled 165 patients whose cancer recurred after having undergone prostatectomies. One group received radiation therapy based on conventional imaging. The other group received treatment that was finalized based on imaging with the fluciclovine PET radiotracer. Those whose treatment was adjusted according to the results of the advanced molecular imaging showed an improvement in the cancer control end point.

“At three years, the group getting treatment guided by PET fluciclovine had a 12 percent better cancer control rate, and this persisted at four years as well, with a 24% improvement,” says Jani. “We think the improvement was seen because the novel PET allowed for better selection of patients for radiation, better treatment decisions, and better radiation target design.”

Fluciclovine PET imaging has been getting some attention in the urology/prostate cancer world.

More details here.

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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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