Mysterious DNA modification important in fly brain

Drosophila, despite being a useful genetic model of development, have very little DNA methylation on C. What they do have is methylation on A (technically, N6-methyladenine), although little was known about what this modification did for Read more

Where it hurts matters in the gut

What part of the intestine is problematic matters more than inflammatory bowel disease subtype (Crohn’s vs ulcerative colitis), when it comes to genetic activity signatures in pediatric Read more

Overcoming cisplatin resistance

Cisplatin was known to damage DNA and to unleash reactive oxygen species, but the interaction between cisplatin and Mek1/cRaf had not been observed Read more

Mysterious DNA modification important in fly brain

Emory scientists have identified a function for a mysterious DNA modification in fruit flies’ brain development, which may provide hints to its role in humans.

The results were published Thursday, August 2 in Molecular Cell.

Epigenetics may mean “above the genes,” but a lot of the focus in the field is on DNA methylation, a chemical modification of DNA itself. Methylation doesn’t change the actual DNA letters (A, C, G and T), but it does change how DNA is handled by the cell. Generally, it shuts genes off and is essential for cell differentiation.

The most commonly studied form of DNA methylation appears on the DNA letter C (cytosine). Drosophila, despite being a useful genetic model of development, have very little of this form of DNA methylation. What they do have is methylation on A — technically, N6-methyladenine, although little was known about what this modification did for flies.

Editor’s note: See this 2017 Nature feature from Cassandra Willyard on an “epigenetics gold rush”, which mentions the discovery of N6-methyladenine’s presence in the genomes of several organisms.

Emory geneticists Bing Yao, PhD, Peng Jin, PhD and colleagues now have shown that an enzyme that removes methylation from A is critical for neuronal development in Drosophila.

This finding is significant because the enzyme is in the same family (TET for ten-eleven translocation) of demethylases that trigger removal of DNA methylation from C in mammals. The function of TET enzymes, revealing that cells actively removed DNA methylation rather than just letting it slough off, was discovered only in 2009. Read more

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Where it hurts matters in the gut

What part of the intestine is problematic matters more than inflammatory bowel disease subtype (Crohn’s disease vs ulcerative colitis), when it comes to genetic activity signatures in pediatric IBD.

Suresh Venkateswaran and Subra Kugathasan in the lab

That’s the takeaway message for a recent paper in Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology (the PDF is open access) from gastroenterologist Subra Kugathasan and colleagues. His team has been studying risk factors in pediatric IBD that could predict whether a child will experience complications requiring surgery.

Kugathasan is professor of pediatrics and human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine and scientific director of the pediatric IBD program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. He is also director of the Children’s Center for Transplantation and Immune-mediated Disorders.

“This study has demonstrated that tissue samples from the ileum and rectum of CD patients show higher molecular level differences, whereas in tissue samples from two different patients with the same type of disease, the molecular differences are low,” Kugathasan says. “This was an important question to answer, since IBD can be localized to one area, and the treatment responses can vary and can be tailored to a localized area if this knowledge is well known.”

Research associate Suresh Venkateswaran, PhD, is the first author on the CMGH paper.

“We see that the differences are not connected to genomic variations,” he says. “Instead, they may be caused by non-genetic factors which are specific to each location and disease sub-type of the patient.”

These findings have implications for other study designs involving molecular profiling of IBD patients. The authors believe the findings will be important for future design of locally acting drugs.

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Overcoming cisplatin resistance

Despite being studied for decades, the chemotherapy drug cisplatin is revealing new aspects of how it works. Researchers at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have identified an enzyme responsible for making tumors and cancer cell lines resistant to cisplatin, along with an experimental drug that targets that enzyme.

The results were published on July 19 in Cancer Cell.

Winship researcher Sumin Kang, PhD

Cisplatin is a DNA-damaging agent used in standard treatment for lung, head and neck, ovarian, and testicular cancers. It has a simple structure, grabbing DNA with its metallic (platinum) arms to form crosslinks. It used to be known as “cis-flatten” because of its nausea-inducing side effects. The experimental drug, lestaurtinib, has already been tested in clinical studies in combination with other chemotherapy drugs, which means it could easily go into trials against tumors displaying cisplatin resistance.

Sumin Kang, PhD, and colleagues at Winship decided to look for enzymes whose activity was necessary for cancer cells to withstand cisplatin treatment. They chose kinases, enzymes that often control some aspect of cell growth and are have plenty of existing drugs targeting them. The researchers found that in combination with a sub-lethal amount of cisplatin, “knocking down” the activity of the kinase MAST1 kills a cell. But how does that combination work?

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Fragile X: preclinical portfolio for PI3k drug strategy

Research in mice shows that a pharmacological strategy can alleviate multiple behavioral and cellular deficiencies in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome (FXS), the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online last week by Neuropsychopharmacology, and were presented at the NFXF International Fragile X Conference in Cincinnati.

When the compound GSK6A was given to mice lacking the Fmr1 gene, an established animal model of fragile X syndrome, it relieved symptomatic behaviors, such as impaired social interactions and inflexible decision making, which can be displayed by humans with fragile X syndrome.

The findings indicate that treatment with GSK6A or a similar compound could be a viable strategy for addressing cognitive and behavioral problems in fragile X syndrome; this would need to be tested directly in clinical trials. GSK6A inhibits one particular form of a cellular signaling enzyme: the p110β form of PI3 (phosphoinositide-3) kinase. A closely related p110β inhibitor is already in clinical trials for cancer.

Video from the iBook “Basic Science Breakthroughs: Fragile X Syndrome”. Narration by Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren, whose team identified the gene responsible for fragile X.

“Our results suggest that p110β inhibitors can be repurposed for fragile X syndrome, and they have implications for other subtypes of autism spectrum disorders that are characterized by similar alterations of this pathway,” says Gary Bassell, PhD, professor and chair of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Right now, no proven efficient treatments are available for fragile X syndrome that are targeted to the disease mechanism,” says Christina Gross, PhD, from Cincinnati Children’s. “We think that p110β is an appropriate target because it is directly regulated by FMRP, and it is overactivated in both mouse models and patient cell lines.”

The paper represents a collaboration between three laboratories: two at Emory led by Bassell and Shannon Gourley, PhD, and one at Cincinnati Children’s, led by Gross. Gourley is based at Yerkes National Primate Research Center; see this earlier item on her collaboration with Bassell here.

While the researchers are discussing clinical trials of p110β inhibitors in fragile X syndrome, they say that long-term studies in animals are needed to ensure that undesirable side effects do not appear. More here.

With respect to clinical trials, the fragile X community has been disappointed before. Based on encouraging studies in mouse models, drugs targeting mGluR5 glutamate receptors were tested in adolescents and adults. mGluR5 drugs did not show clear benefits; recent re-evaluation suggests the choice of outcome measures, the ages of study participants and drug tolerance may have played a role.

Warren played a major role in developing the mGluR5 approach and Emory investigators were part of those studies. More recently, clinical trials for one of the mGluR5 medications were revived in younger children and Emory is a participating site. Also, see this 2016 discussion in Spectrum with Elizabeth Berry-Kravis on the fragile X mouse model; Bassell, Gross and Gourley have made some inroads on the limitations Berry-Kravis describes.

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Stem cells driven into selective suicide

The term “stem cell” is increasingly stretchy. Orthopedic specialists have been using it when referring to bone marrow concentrate or platelet rich plasma, which are marketed as treatments for joint pain. At Lab Land, we have an interest in pluripotent stem cells, which can differentiate into many types of tissues.

For many applications, the stem cells are actually impurities that need to be removed, because pluripotent stem cells are capable of becoming teratomas, a type of tumor. For quality control, researchers want to figure out how to ensure that the stem-cell-derived cardiac muscle or neural progenitor or pancreas cells (or whatever) are as pure as possible.

Cardiologist and stem cell expert Chunhui Xu has been continuing a line of investigation on this topic. In a recent paper in ACS Chemical Biology, her team showed that “suicide-inducing molecules” can eliminate undifferentiated stem cells from a mixture of cells. This stem-cell-derived mixture was mostly cardiac muscle cells or their progenitors, which Xu’s team wants to use for therapeutic purposes.

Other labs have used metabolic selection – depriving cells of glucose and giving them only lactate –as a selective method for eliminating stem cells from cardiac muscle cultures. This paper shows that the “selective suicide” method works for early-stage differentiation cultures, containing cardiac progenitors, while the metabolic method works only for late-stage cultures contains beating cardiomyocytes.

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The blue spot: where seeds of destruction begin

Neuroscientist and geneticist David Weinshenker makes a case that the locus coeruleus (LC), a small region of the brainstem and part of the pons, is among the earliest regions to show signs of degeneration in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. You can check it out in Trends in Neurosciences.

The LC is the main source of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in the brain, and gets its name (Latin for “blue spot”) from the pigment neuromelanin, which is formed as a byproduct of the synthesis of norepinephrine and its related neurotransmitter dopamine. The LC has connections all over the brain, and is thought to be involved in arousal and attention, stress responses, learning and memory, and the sleep-wake cycle.

Cells in the locus coeruleus are lost in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. From Kelly et al Acta Neuropath. Comm. (2017) via Creative Commons

The protein tau is one of the toxic proteins tied to Alzheimer’s, and it forms intracellular tangles. Pathologists have observed that precursors to tau tangles can be found in the LC in apparently healthy people before anywhere else in the brain, sometimes during the first few decades of life, Weinshenker writes. A similar bad actor in Parkinson’s, alpha-synuclein, can also be detected in the LC before other parts of the brain that are well known for damage in Parkinson’s, such as the dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra.

“The LC is the earliest site to show tau pathology in AD and one of the earliest (but not the earliest) site to show alpha-synuclein pathology in PD,” Weinshenker tells Lab Land. “The degeneration of the cells in both these diseases is more gradual. It probably starts in the terminals/fibers and eventually the cell bodies die.” Read more

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Complexity of NMDA receptor drug discovery target revealed

Know your target. Especially if your target is coming into focus for treating diseases such as schizophrenia and treatment-resistant depression.

NMDA receptors, critical for learning and memory, are sensors in the brain. Studying them in molecular detail is challenging, because they usually come in four parts, and the parts aren’t all the same.

Researchers at Emory have been probing one variety of NMDA receptor assembly found in the cerebellum, and also in the thalamus, a central gateway for sensory inputs, important for cognition, movement and sleep. This variety includes a subunit called GluN2C – together with two partners, GluN1 and GluN2A.

The results were published Thursday, June 28 in Neuron.

Outside of a living brain, NMDA receptor assemblies are typically studied with either two copies of GluN2C or two of GluN2A, but not with one of each, says senior author Stephen Traynelis, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine

“Our data suggest that GluN2C is rarely by itself,” Traynelis says. “It’s typically paired up with another GluN2 subunit. This means we really don’t know what the properties of the main NMDA receptor in the cerebellum or the thalamus are.”

Psychiatrists have become interested in GluN2C because it appears to decline in the brains of schizophrenia patients. Mice without adequate levels of GluN2C display abnormalities in learning, memory and sensory processing, which together resemble schizophrenia in humans. In addition, GluN2C appears to be important for the mechanism of ketamine, a drug being studied for its rapid anti-depressant effects.

Using drugs that are selective for particular combinations of NMDA receptor subunits, Traynelis’ laboratory showed that an assembly of GluN2A and GluN2C is the dominant form in the mouse cerebellum. When GluN2C is introduced into cortical neurons, it prefers to pair up with GluN2A, the researchers found. This raises the question, in regions such as the thalamus, of whether GluN2C also appears with a partner GluN2 subunit. They also observed that the GluN2A-GluN2C assembly has distinct electrochemical properties. Read more

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Measuring sleepiness: alternatives to five naps

In a 2015 episode of The Simpsons, Homer is diagnosed with narcolepsy. Overwhelming sleepiness at the nuclear power plant lands him in the hospital. Sampling his spinal fluid (ouch!), Homer’s chuckling, deep-voiced doctor quickly performs a test for hypocretin, a brain chemical important for staying awake and regulating REM sleep.

Reality check: testing for hypocretin takes time, and is not currently available in the United States. Let’s talk about how sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia are actually diagnosed: operationally, rather than biologically. The less flashy, but standard, way to assess patients is to ask them to take a series of five naps and see how fast they doze off, and how fast they go into REM sleep (the rapid eye movement dreaming phase).

This process, known as the Multiple Sleep Latency Test or MSLT, works pretty well for narcolepsy type 1, the more distinctive form of narcolepsy that includes cataplexy. And it’s hard to fake being sleepy enough to zonk out within a few minutes. But it has a bunch of problems, and dissatisfaction with the MSLT has been developing among sleep specialists for the last several years.

Lynn Marie Trotti, MD

At Emory, neurologists Lynn Marie Trotti and David Rye published an analysis of what I will call the “flip flop problem” in 2013, with others in the field following up more recently. The flip flop problem is: someone who takes the MSLT one day will frequently get another result if they take it again on a different day. Read more

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‘Unbiased’ approaches to Alzheimer’s

In recent news stories about Alzheimer’s disease research, we noticed a word popping up: unbiased. Allan Levey, chair of Emory’s neurology department and head of Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, likes to use that word too. It’s key to a “back to the drawing board” shift taking place in the Alzheimer’s field.

Last week’s announcement of a link between herpes viruses and Alzheimer’s, which Emory researchers contributed to, was part of this shift. Keep in mind: the idea that viral infection contributes to Alzheimer’s has been around a long time, and the Neuron paper doesn’t nail down causality.  

Still, here’s an example quote from National Institute on Aging director Richard Hodes: “This is the first study to provide strong evidence based on unbiased approaches and large data sets that lends support to this line of inquiry.”

What is the bias that needs to be wrung out of the science? The “amyloid hypothesis” has dominated drug development for the last several years. Amyloid is a main constituent of the plaques that appear in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, so treatments that counteract amyloid’s accumulation should help, right? Unfortunately, antibodies against amyloid or inhibitors of enzymes that process it generally haven’t worked out in big clinical trials, although the possibility remains that they weren’t introduced early enough to have a decent effect. Read more

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Antibody production: an endurance sport

Antibodies defend us against infections, so they often get described as weapons. And the cells that produce them could be weapon factories?. To understand recent research from immunologist Jerry Boss’s lab, a more appropriate metaphor is the distinction between sprinting and long-distance running.

Graduate student Madeline Price in Boss’s lab has been investigating how antibody-producing cells use glucose – the simple sugar– and how the cells’ patterns of gene activity reflect that usage. Cells can use glycolysis, which is inefficient but fast, analogous to sprinting, or oxidative phosphorylation, generating much more energy overall, more like long distance running.

As Boss and Price point out:

Immunology + Molecular Pathogenesis graduate student Madeline Price

Glycolytic metabolism produces 2 molecules of ATP per molecule of glucose, while oxidative phosphorylation produces 36 molecules of ATP from the same starting glucose molecule. Where oxidative phosphorylation generates more energy from ATP, glycolysis generates metabolic intermediates that are also useful for rapid cellular proliferation.

In their recent paper in Cell Reports, they lay out what happens to B cells, which can go on to become antibody secreting cells (ASCs), after an initial encounter with bacteria. The B cells first proliferate and upregulate both glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation. However, upon differentiating, the cells shift their preference to oxidative phosphorylation. Read more

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