Enhanced verbal abilities in the congenitally blind

Congenitally blind study participants displayed superior verbal, but not spatial abilities. Possibly reflects their greater reliance on verbal information, and the recruitment of the visual cortex for verbal Read more

Three remarkable Emory case reports from #ACC17

Three remarkable case reports being presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting, including cardiac electrical storm, reverse Takotsubo and congenital heart Read more

Anti-TNF vs Alzheimer's mouse model

While everybody argues about the amyloid hypothesis, there's a case to be made for intervening against Read more

Enhanced verbal abilities in the congenitally blind

A recent paper in Experimental Brain Research from Emory neuroscientist Krish Sathian and colleagues demonstrates that congenitally blind study participants displayed superior verbal, but not spatial abilities, when compared to their sighted counterparts. This may reflect both greater reliance on verbal information, and the recruitment of the visual cortex for verbal tasks.

Sathian’s team has also been investigating, through brain imaging studies, whether the visual cortex is involved in the processing of metaphors (2016 SFN abstract) in the congenitally blind. They previously showed that blind study participants were better at identifying rotated objects by touch. Read more

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Three remarkable Emory case reports from #ACC17

The big news from the American College of Cardiology meeting today is about PCSK9 inhibitors, which were known to be effective at lowering LDL cholesterol, and how much they really prevent heart attacks and save lives.

Lab Land went looking off the beaten path for individual stories of Emory cardiologists saving lives and was pleased to find several. We highlight here three remarkable case reports that are being presented at the ACC meeting. We look forward to learning more about these cases.

Refractory electrical storm 

Electrical storm is life threatening and refers to a recurrent arrhythmia. The arrhythmia did not respond to drug treatment, so anesthesiologists were brought in to perform left stellate ganglion block, an injection of medication into a nerve bundle in the neck, allowing diagnosis and further treatment. It turns out the arrhythmia was caused by sarcoidosis, a rare intrusion of immune cells into the heart. [Saturday morning: Michael Lloyd, Boris Spektor]

Hormone-producing tumor + cardiomyopathy 

A 30-year old woman came to doctors with drastically impaired heart function, although she did not have a blockage of her coronary arteries or signs of damage to the heart muscle. Doctors discovered a tumor near her spine that was producing heart-distorting hormones such as epinephrine. She underwent surgery to remove the tumor. [Saturday afternoon: Stamatios Lerakis]

Giving birth unveils birth defects

Ten days after giving birth, a woman came to a hospital with chest pain. Upon cardiac catheterization, a rearrangement of her coronary arteries was discovered. It appears that the congenital defect had gone undetected until the stress of giving birth. Under medical treatment, she is asymptomatic, but she will need future monitoring and possibly a procedure to correct the artery problems. [Sunday morning: Camden Hebson]

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Anti-TNF vs Alzheimer’s mouse model

An experimental anti-inflammatory drug has positive effects on neuron function and amyloid plaques in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, Emory neuroscientists report. The findings are published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease.

Inflammation’s presence in Alzheimer’s is well established, but it is usually thought of as an accelerator, rather than an initiating cause. While everybody argues about the amyloid hypothesis, there’s a case to be made for intervening against the inflammation. Exactly how is an open question.

The drug tested, called XPro1595, targets the inflammatory signaling molecule tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Commercialized drugs such as etanercept and infliximab, used to treat autoimmune diseases, also block TNF. However, XPro1595 only interferes with the soluble form of TNF and is supposed to have less of an effect on overall immune function.

Senior author Malu Tansey (pictured) and her colleagues say that interfering with TNF could have direct effects on neurons, as well as indirect effects on the immune cells infiltrating the brain. They write that “the most promising finding in our study” is the ability of XPro1595 to restore long-term potentiation or LTP, which is impaired in the Alzheimer’s model mice. Read more

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Excellent exosomes harvest cardiac regenerative capacity

Thanks to biomedical engineer Mike Davis for writing an explanation of “Exosomes: what do we love so much about them?” for Circulation Research, a companion to his lab’s November 2016 publication analyzing exosomes secreted by human cardiac progenitor cells.

We can think of exosomes as tiny packages that cells send each other. They’re secreted bubbles containing proteins and regulatory RNAs. Thus, they may be a way to harvest the regenerative capacity of pediatric heart tissue without delivering the cells themselves.

Mike Davis, PhD is director of the Children’s Heart Research and Outcomes Center (HeRO), part of the Emory/Children’s/Georgia Tech Pediatric Research Alliance

Davis’ lab studied cardiac tissue derived from children of different ages undergoing surgery for congenital heart defects. The scientists isolated exosomes from the cardiac progenitor cells, and tested their regenerative activity in rats with injured hearts.

They found that exosomes derived from older children’s cells were only reparative if they were subjected to hypoxic conditions (lack of oxygen), while exosomes from newborns’  cells improved rats’  cardiac function with or without hypoxia. Read more

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Revived T cells still need fuel

Cancer immunotherapy drugs blocking the PD-1 pathway – known as checkpoint inhibitors – are now FDA-approved for melanoma, lung cancer and several other types of cancer. These drugs are often described as “releasing the brakes” on dysfunctional T cells.

A new study from Emory Vaccine Center and Winship Cancer Institute researchers shows that even if the PD-1-imposed brakes are released, the tumor-specific T cells still need “fuel” to expand in numbers and restore effective immune responses. That fuel comes from co-stimulation through a molecule called CD28.

The results were published Thursday by the journal Science.

Despite the success of PD-1-targeting drugs, many patients’ tumors do not respond to them. The study’s findings indicate that CD28’s presence on T cells could be a clinical biomarker capable of predicting whether drugs targeting PD-1 will be effective. In addition, the requirement for CD28 suggests that co-stimulation may be missing for some patients, which could guide the design of combination therapies.

For the rest of our press release and quotes from authors Rafi Ahmed, Alice Kamphorst and Suresh Ramalingam, please go here. For some additional links and thoughts on PD-1 and CD28, read on:

Read more

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Direct reprogramming into endothelial cells

Direct reprogramming has become a trend in the regenerative medicine field. It means taking readily available cells, such as skin cells or blood cells, and converting them into cells that researchers want for therapeutic purposes, skipping the stem cell stage.

In a way, this approach follows in Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka’s footsteps, but it also tunnels under the mountain he climbed. Direct reprogramming has been achieved for target cell types such as neurons and insulin-producing beta cells.

Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD

In Circulation Research, Emory stem cell biologist Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD and colleagues recently reported converting human skin fibroblast cells into endothelial cells, which line and maintain the health of blood vessels.

Once reprogrammed, a patient’s own cells could potentially be used to treat conditions such as peripheral artery disease, or to form vascular grafts. Exactly how reprogrammed cells should be deployed clinically still needs to be worked out.

In cardiovascular disease, many clinical trials have been performed using bone marrow cells that were not reprogrammed. Emory readers may be familiar with studies conducted by Arshed Quyyumi, MD and colleagues, in which treatment was delivered after patients’ heart attacks. In those studies, sorted progenitor cells, some of which could become endothelial cells, were introduced into the heart. To provide the observed effects, the introduced cells were more likely supplying supportive growth factors.

In contrast, Yoon’s team is able to produce cells that already have endothelial character hammered into them. The authors have applied for a patent. The co-first authors were instructor Sang-Ho Lee, PhD and Changwon Park, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics. Read more

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Zika immunology from returned travelers

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston last weekend, Emory Vaccine Center researcher Mark Mulligan presented some limited findings on immune responses in Zika-infected humans, who were returned US travelers or expatriates.

The results were intriguing, despite the small number of study participants: five, two of whom were pregnant. Detailed information has not been available about immune responses against Zika in humans, especially T cell responses.

Highlights from Mulligan’s abstract:

*All five seemed to have a hole in their immune systems – functional antiviral “killer” CD8 T cells were rare, despite activation of CD8 T cells in general and strong responses from other cell types.

*Cross-reactive immune responses, based on previous exposure to dengue and/or yellow fever vaccine, may have blunted Zika’s peak.

*”Even with prolonged maternal viremia, both pregnancies resulted in live births of apparently healthy babies.” Read more

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Clues to how anti-integrin antibody suppresses SIV

In October 2016, Emory and NIAID researchers published results in Science that surprised the HIV/AIDS field.

They showed that treatment with an antibody, on top of antiretroviral drugs, could lead to long-term viral suppression in SIV-infected monkeys. A similar antibody is already approved for Crohn’s disease, and a clinical trial has begun at NIAID testing the effects in people living with HIV.

The HIV/AIDS field is still puzzling over a study led by Emory pathologist Tab Ansari.

All that was achieved even though HIV/AIDS experts are still puzzled by how the antibody works. Last week, Christina Guzzo,with NIAID director Anthony Fauci’s lab, presented new data at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle that provide some clues. But the broader issue of “what is the antibody doing?” is still open.

Let’s back up a bit. The antibody used in the Science paper targets a molecule called integrin alpha 4 beta 7, usually described as a “gut homing receptor” for CD4+ T cells, which are ravaged by HIV and SIV infection.  Study leader Aftab Ansari (right) and Fauci have both said their idea was to stop T cells from circulating into the gut, a major site of damage during acute viral infection.

Integrin alpha 4 beta 7 was also known to interact with the HIV envelope protein. Accordingly, it is possible to imagine some possibilities for what an antibody against integrin alpha 4 beta 7 could be doing: it could be driving T cells to different places in the body or affecting the T cells somehow, or it could be interfering with interactions between SIV and the cells it infects.

The new data from NIAID say that integrin alpha 4 beta 7 is found on the virus itself. This finding makes sense, because SIV and HIV are enveloped viruses — they steal the clothes of the cells they infect and emerge from. [Integrin alpha 4 beta 7 also appears to help the virus be more infectious in the gut, Guzzo’s presentation says.]

So a third possibility appears: the anti-alpha 4 beta 7 antibody is mopping up virus. Perhaps it’s acting like a virus-neutralizing antibody or the anti-CD4 antibody ibalizumab — CD4 is the main viral receptor on T cells. It could explain why the anti-integrin antibody’s effect is so durable; HIV/SIV can mutate to escape neutralizing antibodies directed against the viral envelope protein, but it can’t mutate the clothes it steals! Read more

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‘Matchmaker’ role for protein behind SMA

Motor neurons connect the spinal cord to the muscles. They can be a meter long in adult humans. SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) affects approximately 1 in 10,000 babies. It impairs the ability to move and breathe, and in its most severe form, kills before the age of two.

A puzzling question has lurked behind SMA (spinal muscular atrophy), the leading genetic cause of death in infants.

The disorder leads to reduced levels of the SMN (survival of motor neurons) protein, which is thought to be involved in processing RNA, something that occurs in every cell in the body. So why does interfering with a process that happens everywhere affect motor neurons first?

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have been building a case for an answer. It’s because motor neurons have long axons. And RNA must be transported to the end of the axons for motor neurons to survive and keep us moving, eating and breathing.

Now the Emory researchers have a detailed picture for what they think the SMN protein is doing, and how its deficiency causes problems in SMA patients’ cells. The findings are published in Cell Reports.

Wilfried Rossoll, PhD in the lab.

“Our model explains the specificity — why motor neurons are so vulnerable to reductions in SMN,” says Wilfried Rossoll, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine [and soon moving to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville]. “What’s new is that we have a mechanism.”

Rossoll and his colleagues showed that the SMN protein is acting like a “matchmaker” for messenger RNA that needs partners to transport it into the cell axon.

RNA carries messages from DNA, huddled in the nucleus, to the rest of the cell so that proteins can be produced locally. But RNA can’t do that on its own, Rossoll says. In the paper, the scientists call SMN a “molecular chaperone.” That means SMN helps RNA hook up with processing and transport proteins, but doesn’t stay attached once the connections are made.

“It loads the truck, but it’s not on the truck,” Rossoll says. [Read the rest of Emory’s press release here.]

He also tells me that even though the two diseases affect very different age groups, SMA and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) have two things in common: they both affect motor neurons and they both involve proteins that transport RNA. He says an emerging idea in the field is that SMA represents a problem of “hypo-assembly” while ALS is a problem of “hyper-assembly.”

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Parkinson’s disease: hold the AMPs

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and colleagues recently published a paper in PNAS that may have implications for Parkinson’s disease pathology and treatment strategies.

The protein alpha-synuclein is a bad actor in PD (nice explainer from Michael J. Fox Foundation); it’s a major constituent of Lewy bodies, the protein clumps that appear in PD patients’ brains, and there is a genetic link too. Alpha-synuclein seems to bring other proteins into the clumps, which may disrupt neuron function.

In particular, it sequesters PIKE-L, an inhibitor of AMP kinase, leading to AMP kinase hyperactivation and cell death. AMP kinase is a metabolic regulator activated by metformin, a common treatment for diabetes. So activating AMP kinase in some situations can be good for your body; however for the neurons affected by alpha-synuclein, activating it too much is bad.

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