Making cardiac progenitor cells feel at home

Does this Jello dessert call up memories? We explain the connection to the Davis lab's hydrogels that help cardiac progenitor cells stay in the heart

Rare disease diagnosis, accelerated by social media

Emory geneticists' involvement in an effort to diagnose children with a rare genetic disorder. Whole exome sequencing comes up too.

Buzzword overuse alert: epigenetics

The term “epigenetics” has come up a lot here on the Lab Land blog.

In June a discussion came up on Twitter about scientific terms that are overused. I began to wonder whether I was contributing to the problem and may need to tighten up my use of the word “epigenetics.” Read more

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Making cardiac progenitor cells feel at home

One lab uses goopy alginate, another uses peptides that self-assemble into hydrogels. The objective is the same: protecting cells that are injected into the heart and making them feel like they’re at home.

Around the world, thousands of heart disease patients have been treated in clinical studies with some kind of cell-based therapy aimed at regenerating the heart muscle or at least promoting its healing. This approach is widely considered promising, but its effectiveness is limited in that most of the cells don’t stay in the heart or die soon after being introduced. [UPDATE: Nice overview of cardiac cell therapy controversy in July 18 Science]

Biomedical engineer Mike Davis and his colleagues recently published a paper in Biomaterials describing hydrogels that can encourage cardiac progenitor cells injected into the heart to stay in place. The first author is former graduate student Archana Boopathy, who recently started her postdoctoral work at MIT. Davis has been working with these self-assembling peptides for some time: see this 2005 Circulation paper he published during his own postdoctoral work with Richard Lee at Harvard.DavisDiagram

How do these hydrogels keep cells from washing away? We don’t have to go much beyond the name: think Jello. Researchers design snippets of proteins (peptides) that, like Jello*, form semisolid gels under the right conditions in solution. Helpfully, they also are customized with molecular tools for making cardiac progenitor cells happy. Read more

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Rare disease diagnosis, accelerated by social media

Seth Mnookin’s long piece in the New Yorker, on how social media accelerated the diagnosis of several children with a rare genetic disorder, is getting a lot of praise this week. This is the same story that was on CNN.com in March, titled “Kids who don’t cry”, and that Emory Genetics Laboratory director Madhuri Hedge mentioned as a recent diagnostic success for the technique of whole exome sequencing.

Briefly: parents of or doctors treating several children with a previously unknown metabolic disorder, with multiple symptoms — absent tear production, developmental delay, movement deficits, digestive problems etc — found each other via Internet searches/blog posts. The problems were traced back to mutations in the NGLY1 gene.

Emory geneticists Michael Gambello, Melanie Jones (now at the Greenwood Genetic Center in South Carolina) and Hegde are co-authors on the Genetics in Medicine paper that lays everything out scientifically.

Gambello, Jones and Hegde were responsible for sequencing the DNA of a North Georgia family (they live in Jackson County), whose members are mentioned in Mnookin’s piece. The Gambello lab is developing an animal model of NGLY1 deficiency and is studying the mechanisms of how NGLY1 deficiency affects brain development.

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Flashback to LSD research from the 1950s

Accompanying Kai Kupferschmidt’s July 3 feature in Science, which discusses a current revival of clinical research on hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin, was a curious historical photo. The 1955 copyrighted photo depicts pharmacologist Harry Williams squirting LSD into the mouth of Carl Pfeiffer, chair of pharmacology at Emory during the 1950’s. Read more

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Hunting for potential diabetes drugs

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and his colleagues have been prolific in finding small molecules able to mimic the action of the brain growth factor BDNF. Aiming to export that success to similar molecules (that is, other receptor tyrosine kinases), they have been searching for potential drugs able to substitute for insulin.

Diabetes drugs Januvia (sitagliptin) and Lantus (insulin analog) are top 20 drugs, both in terms of dollars and monthly prescriptions, and the inconvenience of insulin injection is well known, so the business potential is clear.

A paper published in the journal Diabetes in April describes Ye’s team’s identification of a compound called chaetochromin A, which was originally isolated by Japanese researchers studying toxins found in moldy rice. Chaetochromin A can drive down blood sugar in normal, type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes mouse models, the authors show.

See here for another compound identified in Ye’s lab with similar properties.

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CRISPR gene editing can miss its mark

Yanni Lin, TJ Cradick, Gang Bao and colleagues from Georgia Tech and Emory reported recently in Nucleic Acids Research on how the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system can sometimes miss its mark.

CRISPR/Cas9 has received abundant coverage from science-focused media outlets. Basically, it is a convenient system for cutting DNA in cells in a precise way. This paper shows that the CRISPR/Cas9 system can sometimes cut DNA in places that don’t exactly match the designed target.

Here we show that CRISPR/Cas9 systems can have off-target cleavage when DNA sequences have an extra base or a missing base at various locations compared with the corresponding RNA guide strand…Our results suggest the need to perform comprehensive off-target analysis by considering cleavage due to DNA and sgRNA bulges in addition to base mismatches.

CRISPR/Cas9 could be used to develop therapies for humans for genetic blood diseases such as sickle cell or thalassemia, and this paper does not change that potential. But the authors are cautioning fellow scientists that they need to design their tools carefully and perform quality control. Other investigators have made similar findings.

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Evaluating a different way to measure LDL

What is the most important measurement of cholesterol or lipids in the blood, when it comes to cardiovascular disease risk? LDL-C [low density lipoprotein cholesterol], is often called “bad cholesterol” because it is linked to atherosclerosis, but the landscape is always shifting. Even as cardiologists across the country get used to the new AHA/ACC guidelines, which call for changes in how physicians and patients view LDL-C, new research is focusing attention on other related markers. For example, a recent pair of studies in the New England Journal of Medicine identify gene mutations that lower both triglycerides and heart disease risk, suggesting that drugs that target that gene pathway could be beneficial. A new paper in Atherosclerosis, coauthored by Emory’s Terry Jacobson, looks at LDL-P, a different way of looking at LDL that has been proposed to be a better measure of cardiovascular disease risk. Jacobson is director of the Office of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Grady Health Systems. Read more

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Epigenetic changes in atherosclerosis

If someone living in America and eating a typical diet and leading a sedentary lifestyle lets a few years go by, we can expect plaques of cholesterol and inflammatory cells to build up in his or her arteries. We’re not talking “Super-size Me” here, we’re just talking average American. But then let’s say that same person decides: “OK, I’m going to shape up. I’m going to eat healthier and exercise more.”

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Let’s leave aside whether low-carb or low-fat is best, and let’s say that person succeeds in sticking to his or her declared goals. How “locked in” are the changes in the blood vessels when someone has healthy or unhealthy blood flow patterns?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo and his colleagues published a paper in Journal of Clinical Investigation that touches on this issue. They have an animal model where disturbed blood flow triggers the accumulation of atherosclerosis. They show that the gene expression changes in endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, have an epigenetic component. Specifically, the durable DNA modification known as methylation is involved, and blocking DNA methylation with a drug used for treating some forms of cancer can prevent atherosclerosis in their model. This suggests that blood vessels retain an epigenetic imprint reflecting the blood flow patterns they see.

Although treating atherosclerosis with the drug decitabine is not a viable option clinically, Jo’s team was able to find several genes that are silenced by disturbed blood flow and that need DNA methylation to stay shut off. A handful of those genes have a common mechanism of regulation and may be good therapeutic targets for drug discovery.

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Cancer immunotherapy, meet chimera

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In Greek mythology, the chimera was a monstrous fire-breathing creature composed of the parts of three animals: a lion, a snake and a goat.

Adoptive cell transfer is advancing as a cancer immunotherapy technique. It involves removing some of a patient’s immune cells, culturing them in the laboratory, and then infusing the cells back into the patient. The idea is to enhance the ability of the immune cells to attack the tumors far beyond what the immune system was able of doing on its own.

Two promising examples are the National Cancer Institute’s approach of treating advanced melanoma with IL-2-stimulated immune cells, and several investigators’ approach of genetically engineering T cells to attack leukemias or lymphomas.

Jacques Galipeau and colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute have developed a chimeric molecule for stimulating immune cells, which appears to have unique powers beyond simply the sum of its two parts. The molecule is called GIFT4, a fusion of the immune signaling molecules GM-CSF (often used in cancer treatment) and IL-4.

Read more

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Parkinson’s drug discovery: visit the dopamine container store

In a recent PNAS paper, Gary Miller and colleagues at Rollins School of Public Health outline a potential therapeutic approach to Parkinson’s disease that I’m going to call the Container Store approach.

If you have a mess in your kitchen or basement workshop, you might need more or better containers to hold your tools. Analogously, problems in Parkinson’s disease can be traced back to a lack of effective containers for the brain communication chemical dopamine.

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