The National Institutes of Health has announced a five-year, $1.9 million Transformative Research Award to Emory virologist Edward Mocarski, PhD for his work on how the mechanisms of programmed cell death can be subverted.
Mocarski is Robert W. Woodruff professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Vaccine Center. His research, which originated in probing how cells commit suicide when taken over by viruses, could lead to advances in regenerative medicine and organ transplant.
Thomas Barker, PhD (left) and Edward Mocarski, PhD (right)
The grant, funded through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is one of nine “high-risk-, high-reward” Transformative Research Awards (13 recipients) announced by the NIH on October 6.
In the same group this year, Thomas Barker in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University received a Transformative Research Award for his research on mechanosensors + pulmonary fibrosis.
The Transformative Research Award program supports “exceptionally innovative, unconventional, paradigm-shifting research projects that are inherently risky and untested.” Emory has achieved only one other TRA since the program was established in 2009: Shuming Nie’s project on imaging to guide cancer surgery. Read more
This grant announcement from the American Heart Association caught Lab Land’s eye. All three of the scientists involved in this project, examining the connections between hypertension, inflammation and the sympathetic nervous system in PTSD, have Emory connections:
*Kerry Ressler, previously Emory Psychiatry/HHMI-supported/Yerkes-based lab/Grady Trauma Project, who moved this summer to Harvard’s McLean Hospital
Related finding that emerged from the Grady Trauma Project: Blood pressure drugs linked with lower PTSD symptoms
*Paul Marvar, who worked with both David Harrison and Kerry Ressler at Emory, and is now at George Washington University
Related item on Marvar’s work: Immune cells required for stress-induced rise in blood pressure in animals
*Jeanie Park, kidney specialist who is here now! The grant is exploring the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system, regulation of blood pressure and PTSD.
2015 TV interview with Park on her chronic kidney disease research
Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl records will recall how a scratch can cause the same sounds to repeat many times. A similar type of genetic glitch causes neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and several forms of spinocerebellar ataxia.
Huntington’s and the spinocerebellar ataxias are known as “polyglutamine” diseases. In each, the affected gene has a stretch where the same three DNA letters are repeated several times — more than usual. As a result, the protein encoded by the affected gene has a patch, where only the building block glutamine can be found, disrupting that protein’s usual functions in the body.
Geneticist Xiao-Jiang Li and colleagues recently published a paper in Cell Reports that may explain why more aggressive juvenile-onset forms of polyglutamine diseases have different symptoms and pathology. Read more
The DNA in our cells is constantly being damaged by heat, radiation and other environmental stresses, and the enzyme systems that repair DNA are critical for life. A particularly toxic form of damage is the covalent attachment of a protein to DNA, which can be triggered by radiation or by anticancer drugs.
Keith Wilkinson, PhD
Emory biochemist Keith Wilkinson and colleagues have a paper this week in the journal eLife probing how a yeast protein called Wss1 is involved in repairing DNA-protein crosslinks. The researchers show how Wss1 wrestles with a protein tag called SUMO on the site of the DNA damage, and how Wss1 and SUMO are involved in the cleanup process.
Three interesting things about this paper:
*The paper grew out of first author Maxim Balakirev’s sabbatical with Wilkinson at Emory. Balakirev’s home base is at the CEA (Alternative Energy and Atomic Energy Commission) in Grenoble, France.
* Since many cancer chemotherapy drugs induce protein-DNA cross links, an inhibitor of cross link repair could enhance those drugs’ effectiveness. On the other side of the coin, mutations in a human gene called Spartan, whose sequence looks similar to Wss1’s, cause premature aging and susceptibility to liver cancer. Whether the Spartan-encoded protein has the same biochemical activity as Wss1 is not yet clear.
*SUMO stands for “small ubiquitin-like modifier”. The eLife digest has an elegant explanation of what’s happening: Read more
These days, it sounds a bit old-fashioned to ask the question: “Where is consciousness located in the brain?” The prevailing thinking is that consciousness lives in the network, rather than in one particular place. Still, neuroscientists sometimes get an intriguing glimpse of a critical link in the network.
A recent paper in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior describes an epilepsy patient who had electrodes implanted within her brain at Emory University Hospital, because neurologists wanted to understand where her seizures were coming from and plan possible surgery. Medication had not controlled her seizures and previous surgery elsewhere had not either.
MRI showing electrode placement. Yellow outline indicates the location of the caudate and thalamus. Image from Leeman-Markowsi et al, Epilepsy & Behavior (2015).
During intracranial EEG monitoring, implanted electrodes detected a pattern of signals coming from one part of the thalamus, a central region of the brain. The pattern was present when the patient was conscious, and then stopped as soon as seizure activity made her lose awareness.
The pattern of signals had a characteristic frequency – around 35 times per second – so it helps to think of the signal as an auditory tone. Lead author Beth Leeman-Markowski, director of EUH’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at the time when the patient was evaluated, describes the signal as a “buzz.”
“That buzz has something to do with maintenance of consciousness,” she says. Read more
The potential of a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference has long enticed biotechnology researchers. It’s used routinely in the laboratory to shut down specific genes in cells. Still, the challenge of delivery has held back RNA-based drugs in treating human disease.
RNA is unstable and cumbersome, and just getting it into the body without having it break down is difficult. One that hurdle is met, there is another: the vast majority of the drug is taken up by the liver. Many current RNA-based approaches turn this apparent bug into a strength, because they seek to treat liver diseases. See these articles in The Scientist and in Technology Review for more.
But what if you need to deliver RNA somewhere besides the liver?
Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo’s lab at Emory/Georgia Tech, working with Katherine Ferrara’s group at UC Davis, has developed technology to broaden the liver-dominant properties of RNA-based drugs.
Hanjoong Jo, PhD
The results were recently published in ACS Nano. The researchers show they can selectively target an anti-microRNA agent to inflamed blood vessels in mice while avoiding other tissues.
“We have solved a major obstacle of using anti-miRNA as a therapeutic by being able to do a targeted delivery to only inflamed endothelial cells while all other tissues examined, including liver, lung, kidney, blood cells, spleen, etc showed no detectable side-effects,” Jo says. Read more
Flu viruses are constantly mutating and every year the seasonal flu shot is updated to keep up with the viruses that are making people sick. Readers interested in the prospect of a “universal flu vaccine” may have noticed some experimental progress on that theme this week.
The reports build on findings some years ago from Emory Vaccine Center researchers led by Rafi Ahmed. Ahmed’s team had showed that people infected by the 2009 H1N1 flu strain developed broadly protective antibodies, and separately, so did volunteers immunized against the H5N1 avian flu virus.
Some background: the head region of the flu virus’s mushroom-like hemagglutinin protein is more variable, and more exposed to the immune system, while the stem/stalk region is less variable.
The underlying idea is: if someone’s immune system is exposed to flu viruses different enough than what it has seen before (like in the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and the H5N1 study), the antibodies to the stem region become more important and more prominent.
The NIAID team fused the flu hemagglutinin to ferritin, a platform for further protein engineering.
This week, what the researchers from NIAID (Nature Medicine) and Scripps/J&J (Science) showed is that experimental vaccines made from the stem region only can be broadly protective in several animal models. This required some protein engineering and reconstruction because chopping off the head of the hemagglutinin protein makes it fall apart.
Emory Vaccine Center’s Walter Orenstein, in comments for Genetic Experts News Service, wrote:
These are animal studies, so we are some way off for development and testing of a vaccine in humans. The technique is promising and a step in the right direction. Read more