Alternative antibody architecture

The complex genomic apparatus for making lampreys' antibody-like receptors

The age of blood

Investigating how long blood can be stored before the benefit of transfusion is compromised

PTH for stroke: stem cells lite

Spur the body's regenerative agents to emerge from the bone marrow

Alternative antibody architecture

This complex diagram, showing the gene segments that encode lamprey variable lymphocyte receptors, comes from a recent PNAS paper published by Emory’s Max Cooper and his colleagues along with collaborators from Germany led by Thomas Boehm. Lampreys have molecules that resemble our antibodies in function, but they look very different at the protein level. The study of lamprey immunity provides hints to how the vertebrate immune system has evolved.
PNAS-2014-Das-1415580111_Page_4

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The age of blood

Nature Medicine has a nice feature from Jeanne Erdmann highlighting the debate over how long donated blood can be stored. It sets the stage for two prospective clinical trials (RECESS and ABLE), which recently concluded but are still being analyzed. The trials were looking at how the age of stored blood affects patients undergoing cardiac surgery or in intensive care, respectively. Erdmann also mentions that the NIH’s Clinical Center already has tightened its standards for blood storage time.

Emory Blood Bank director John Roback and cardiologist Arshed Quyyumi have been participants in this debate, both theoretically and experimentally. In 2011, they proposed that depletion of the messenger molecule nitric oxide limits the benefits donated blood can provide to patients. In addition to nitric oxide depletion, the “storage lesion” is likely to include several changes, such as lysis of red blood cells, mechanical alterations in the remaining cells, and other chemical changes.

Since then, Emory research has shown that transfusion of donated blood more than three weeks old results in impaired blood vessel function in hospitalized patients, but in contrast, not in healthy volunteers. This information could allow doctors to prioritize fresher blood for patients with cardiovascular diseases.

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PTH for stroke: stem cells lite

I’d like to highlight a paper in PLOS One from anesthesiologists Shan Ping Yu and Ling Wei’s group that was published earlier this year. [Sorry for missing it then!] They are investigating potential therapies for stroke, long a frustrating area of clinical research. The “clot-busting” drug tPA remains the only FDA-approved therapy, despite decades of work on potential neuroprotective agents.

Yu’s team takes a different tactic. They seek to bolster the brain’s recovery powers after stroke by mobilizing endogenous progenitor cells. I will call this approach “stem cells lite.”

journal.pone.0087284.g006

PTH appears to encourage new neurons in recovery in a mouse model of ischemic stroke. Green = recent cell division, red = neuronal marker

It is similar to that taken by cardiologist Arshed Quyyumi and colleagues with peripheral artery disease: use a growth factor (GM-CSF), which is usually employed for another purpose, to get the body’s own regenerative agents to emerge from the bone marrow.

In this case, Yu’s team was using parathyroid hormone (PTH), which is an FDA-approved treatment for osteoporosis. They administered it, beginning one hour after loss of blood flow, in a mouse model of ischemic stroke. They found that daily treatment with PTH spurs production of endogenous regenerative factors in the stroke-affected area of the brain. They observed both increased new neuron formation and sensorimotor functional recovery. However, PTH does not pass through the blood-brain barrier and does not change the size of the stroke-affected area, the researchers found.

The conclusion of the paper hints at their next steps:

As this is the first report on this PTH therapy for ischemic stroke for the demonstration of the efficacy and feasibility, PTH treatment was initiated at 1 hr after stroke followed by repeated administrations for 6 days. We expect that even more delayed treatment of PTH, e.g. several hrs after stroke, can be beneficial in promoting chronic angiogenesis and other tissue repair processes. This possibility, however, remains to be further evaluated in a more translational investigation.

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Divide and conquer vs lung cancer

Doctors are using a “divide and conquer” strategy against lung cancer, and in some corners of the battlefield, it’s working. A few mutations – genetic alterations in the tumor that don’t come from the patient’s normal cells — have been found for which drugs are effective in pushing back against the cancer.

However, most lung tumors do not have one of these mutations, and response rates to conventional chemotherapy in patients with advanced lung cancer are poor. Generally, only around 20 percent of patients show a clinical response, in that the cancer retreats noticeably for some time.

Johann Brandes and colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute have been looking for biomarkers that can predict whether an advanced lung tumor is going to respond to one of the most common chemotherapy drug combinations, carboplatin and taxol.

“The availability of a predictive test is desirable since it would allow patients who are unlikely to benefit from this treatment combination to be spared from side effects and to be selected for other, possibly more effective treatments,” Brandes says.

Brandes’ team’s data comes from looking at patients with advanced lung cancer at the Atlanta VAMC from 1999 to 2010. In a 2013 paper in Clinical Cancer Research, the team looked at a protein called CHFR. It controls whether cells can reign in their cycles of cell division while being bombarded with chemotherapy.

In this group being treated with carboplatin and taxol, patients who had tumors that measured low in this protein lived almost four months longer, on average, than those who had tumors that were high (9.9 vs 6.2 months).

His team takes a similar approach in a new paper published in PLOS One. Postdoc Seth Brodie is the first author of the PLOS One paper; he is also co-first author of the CHFR paper along with Rathi Pillai. Read more

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What are exosomes?

Biomedical engineer Mike Davis reports he has obtained NHLBI funding to look into therapeutic applications of exosomes in cardiology. But wait. What are exosomes? Time for an explainer!

Exosomes are tiny membrane-wrapped bags, which form inside cells and are then spat out. They’re about 100 or 150 nanometers in diameter. That’s smaller than the smallest bacteria, and about as large as a single influenza or HIV virion. They’re not visible under a light microscope, but are detectable with an electron microscope.

Scientific interest in exosomes shot up after it was discovered that they can contain RNA, specifically microRNAs, which inhibit the activity of other genes. This could be another way in which cells talk to each other long-distance, besides secreting proteins or hormones. Exosomes are thus something like viruses, without the infectivity.

Since researchers are finding that microRNAs have potential as therapeutic agents, why not harness the vehicles that cells use to send microRNAs to each other? Similarly, if so much evidence points toward the main effect of cell therapy coming from what the cells make rather than the cells themselves, why not simply harvest what the cells make? Read more

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Key to universal flu vaccine: embrace the unfamiliar

Vaccine researchers have developed a strategy aimed at generating broadly cross-reactive antibodies against the influenza virus: embrace the unfamiliar.

In recent years, researchers interested in a “universal flu vaccine” identified a region of the viral hemagglutinin protein called the stem or stalk, which doesn’t mutate and change as much as other regions and could be the basis for a vaccine that is protective against a variety of flu strains.

In an Emory Vaccine Center study, human volunteers immunized against the avian flu virus H5N1 readily developed antibodies against the stem region of the viral hemagglutinin protein. In contrast, those immunized with standard seasonal trivalent vaccines did not, instead developing most of their antibodies against the more variable head region. H5N1, regarded as a potential pandemic strain, is not currently circulating in the United States and the volunteers had not been exposed to it before.

The results were published Monday, August 25 in PNAS.

The key to having volunteers’ bodies produce antibodies against the stem region seemed to be their immune systems’ unfamiliarity with the H5N1 type of virus, says lead author Ali Ellebedy, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

Note: for a counterpoint, check out this 2013 Science Translational Medicine paper on how vaccination that induces anti-stem antibodies contributes to enhanced respiratory disease in pigs.

Read more

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Catching up on Emory transplant advances

While preparing to discuss Ebola virology with Emory infectious disease specialist Aneesh Mehta next week, we noticed two recent research papers on which he is a co-author. Both have to do with organ transplantation, since Mehta is Assistant Director of Transplant Infectious Diseases.

Fecal microbiota transplantation for refractory Clostridium difficile colitis in solid organ transplant recipients

Fecal transplant is gaining ground as a remedy for C. difficile-driven diarrheal infections, which can appear in patients whose normal intestinal bacteria are wiped out by antibiotics. Fecal transplant has not been widely studied in organ transplant recipients, who must take drugs to keep their immune systems from rejecting the transplanted organ, because of concerns about infectious disease complications. This paper describes two patients, one a lung transplant recipient and one a kidney transplant recipient, who received fecal transplants to resolve their C. difficile diarrhea without complications. The lead authors are infectious disease specialists Rachel Friedman-Moraco and Colleen Kraft. Kraft has been a pioneer in this area of research.

Renal transplantation using belatacept without maintenance steroids or calcineurin inhibitors

Medical school dean Chris Larsen and Emory Transplant Center executive director Tom Pearson (both co-authors) were key members on the team that developed belatacept, a FDA-approved drug since 2011. Belatacept was designed to get away from the cruel paradox where a kidney recipient, to prevent transplant rejection, has to take calcineurin inhibitor drugs that slowly poison the kidney and cardiovascular health. Belatacept inhibits the immune response by a different mechanism. Yet transplant specialists have generally been cautious in moving toward a regimen that relies on it.

As reported in this paper, Emory transplant doctors took off the training wheels, aiming to get to the point where kidney transplant recipients are taking a once-a-month infusion of belatacept only. With some patients, it was possible to reach that goal, but not all. In fact, as the authors describe, some patients chose not to try to wean themselves off the other drugs, and doctors advised against the attempt for a handful. This clinical trial was also notable because some transplant recipients received immune-educational cells from their organ donors in the form of bone marrow.

The lead author, former Emory Transplant Center scientific director Allan Kirk, moved to Duke this spring.

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Maturing brain flips function of amygdala in regulating stress hormones

In contrast to evidence that the amygdala stimulates stress responses in adults, researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University have found that the amygdala has an inhibitory effect on stress hormones during the early development of nonhuman primates.

The results are published this week in Journal of Neuroscience.

The amygdala is a region of the brain known to be important for responses to threatening situations and learning about threats. Alterations in the amygdala have been reported in psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders like PTSD, schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder. However, much of what is known about the amygdala comes from research on adults.

“Our findings fit into an emerging theme in neuroscience research: that during childhood, there is a switch in amygdala function and connectivity with other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex,” says Mar Sanchez, PhD, neuroscience researcher at Yerkes and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. The first author of the paper is postdoctoral fellow Jessica Raper, PhD.

Some notable links on the amygdala:

*An effort to correct simplistic views of amygdala as the “fear center” of the brain

*Collection of papers mentioning patient SM, an adult human with an amygdala lesion

*Recent Nature Neuroscience paper on amygdala’s role in appetite control

*Evidence for changing amygdala-prefrontal connectivity in humans during development Read more

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A new frame of reference — on ribosome frameshifting

It’s a fundamental rule governing how the genetic code works. Ribosomes, the factories that assemble proteins in all types of living cells, read three letters (or nucleotides) of messenger RNA at a time.

In some instances, the ribosome can bend its rules, and read either two or four nucleotides, altering how downstream information is read. Biologists call this normally rare event ribosomal frameshifting. For an ordinary gene, the event of a frameshift turns the rest of the ensuing protein into nonsense. However, many viruses exploit frameshifting, because they can then have overlapping genes and fit more information into a limited space.

Regulated frameshifting takes place in human genes too, and understanding frameshifting is key to recent efforts to expand the genetic code. Researchers are aiming to use the process to customize proteins for industrial and pharmaceutical applications, by inserting amino acid building blocks not found in nature.

“Going back to the 1960s, when the genetic code was first revealed, there were many studies on ribosomal frameshifting, yet no-one really knows how it works on a molecular and mechanistic level,” says Christine Dunham, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine. “What we do know is that the ‘yardstick’ model that appears in a lot of textbooks, saying that the anticodon loop dictates the number of nucleotides decoded, while elegant, is probably incorrect.”

Dunham, who first studied the topic as a postdoc, and her colleagues published a paper this week in PNAS where they outline a model for how ribosomal frameshifting occurs, based on structural studies of the ribosome interacting with some of its helper machinery. Co-first authors of the paper are postdoctoral fellows Tatsuya Maehigashi, PhD and Jack Dunkle, PhD.

Read more

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Pilot human trial for image-guided cancer surgery tool

The Spectropen, a hand-held device developed by Emory and Georgia Tech scientists, was designed to help surgeons see the margins of tumors during surgery.

Some of the first results from procedures undertaken with the aid of the Spectropen in human cancer patients were recently published by the journal PLOS One. A related paper discussing image-guided removal of pulmonary nodules was just published in Annals of Thoracic Surgery.

To test the Spectropen, biomedical engineer Shuming Nie and his colleagues have been collaborating with thoracic surgeon Sunil Singhal at the University of Pennsylvania.

As described in the PLOS One paper, five patients with cancer in their lungs or chest participated in a pilot study at Penn. They received an injection of the fluorescent dye indocyanine green (ICG) before surgery.

ICG is already FDA-approved for in vivo diagnostics and now used to assess cardiac and liver function. ICG accumulates in tumors more than normal tissue because tumors have leaky blood vessels and membranes. The Spectropen shines light close to the infrared range on the tumor, causing it to glow because of the fluorescent dye.

[This technique resembles the 5-aminolevulinic acid imaging technique for brain tumor surgery being tested by Costas Hadjipanayis, described in Emory Medicine.]

In one case from the PLOS One article, the imaging procedure had some tangible benefits, allowing the surgeons to detect the spread of cancerous cells when other modes of imaging did not. Read more

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