Dengue infection makes exhausted T cells?

An Emory-ICGEB collaboration to investigate immune responses to dengue virus is getting some attention. Dengue infection's effect on CD8 T cells has some similarities to the T cell exhaustion in chronic viral infection described by Ahmed and Read more

How metabolic syndrome interacts with stress - mouse model

Emory scientists reveal evidence from a mouse model for the synergistic effect of diet and chronic psychological stress affecting the biliverdin pathway. Biliverdin is a product of heme breakdown and makes bruises Read more

Immunotherapy for triple negative breast cancer

For “triple-negative” breast cancer (TNBC) in particular, immunotherapy could be a good match, because of the scarcity of targeted treatments and because TNBC’s genomic instability is well-suited to immunotherapy. Photo: Jane Meisel with Read more

Dengue infection makes exhausted T cells?

An ongoing collaboration between the Emory Vaccine Center and the ICGEB (International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) in New Delh, investigating immune responses to dengue virus, is getting some attention.

A Journal of Virology paper published by the collaboration was highlighted by Nature Asia. In that paper, the researchers show that in dengue infection, the group of antiviral immune cells known as CD8+ T cells undergoes a massive expansion. That could be dangerous if all of the CD8 T cells were making inflammatory cytokines, but they do not. Only a small fraction are making cytokines.

The authors point out that this phenomenon is “somewhat reminiscent of T-cell exhaustion seen under the conditions of prolonged antigenic stimulus in chronic viral infections [which has been studied in detail by Rafi Ahmed and colleagues] or closely resembles the ‘stunned’ phenotype reported in febrile phase of other acute infections such as HIV and viral hepatitis… The IFN-γ unresponsiveness acquired during the massive antigen-driven clonal expansion is likely to ensure that these cells do not cause excessive inflammation at the time that their numbers are high during the febrile phase of dengue disease.” Read more

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How metabolic syndrome interacts with stress – mouse model

Emory researchers recently published a paper in Brain, Behavior and Immunity on the interaction between psychological stress and diet-induced metabolic syndrome in a mouse model.

“The metabolic vulnerability and inflammation associated with conditions present in metabolic syndrome may share common risk factors with mood disorders. In particular, an increased inflammatory state is recognized to be one of the main mechanisms promoting depression,” writes lead author Betty Rodrigues, a postdoc in Malu Tansey’s lab in the Department of Physiology.

This model may be useful for identification of possible biomarkers and therapeutic targets to treat metabolic syndrome and mood disorders. As a follow-up, Tansey reports that her team is investigating the protective effects of an anti-inflammatory agent on both the brain and the liver using the same model.

Metabolic syndrome and stress have a complex interplay throughout the body, the researchers found. For example, psychological stress by itself does not affect insulin or cholesterol levels, but it does augment them when combined with a high-fat, high-fructose diet. In contrast, stress promotes adaptive anti-inflammatory markers in the hippocampus (part of the brain), but those changes are wiped out by a high-fat, high-fructose diet.

The findings show synergistic effects by diet and stress on gut permeability promoted by inflammation, and the biliverdin pathway. Biliverdin, a product of heme breakdown, is responsible for a greenish color sometimes seen in bruises.

“Stress and high-fat high-fructose diet promoted disturbances in biliverdin, a metabolite associated with insulin resistance,” Rodrigues writes. “To the best of our knowledge, our results reveal for the first time evidence for the synergistic effect of diet and chronic psychological stress affecting the biliverdin pathway.”

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Immunotherapy for triple negative breast cancer

Treatments that unleash the immune system against cancer have been a hot topic for the last few years, but they do not appear in our recent feature on breast cancer for Winship Cancer Institute’s magazine.

Partly, that’s because decent avenues for treatment exist for most types of breast cancer, with improvements in survival since the 1980s. Immunotherapy’s successes have been more dramatic for types of cancer against which progress had been otherwise meager, such as lung cancers and metastatic melanoma.

Jane Meisel, MD with patient

Winship oncologist Jane Meisel, MD with patient

However, for “triple-negative” breast cancer (TNBC) in particular, immunotherapy could be a good match, because of the scarcity of targeted treatments and because TNBC’s genomic instability may be well-suited to immunotherapy.

Winship oncologists Jane Meisel and Keerthi Gogineni inform Lab Land that several early-phase clinical studies open to breast cancer patients, testing “checkpoint inhibitor” agents such as PD-1 inhibitors, are underway. More are pending.

Meisel’s presentation at Winship’s Sea Island retreat says that immunotherapy is “not yet ready for prime time, but a very promising experimental approach for a subset of patients for whom current therapies are not sufficient. We need to better understand which subsets of patients are most likely to benefit, and how we can use other therapies to enhance efficacy in patients who don’t initially respond.”

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Retaining the resistance: MCR-1, colistin + lysozyme

If you’ve been following the news about antibiotic resistant bacteria, you may have heard about a particularly alarming plasmid: MCR-1. A plasmid is a circle of DNA that is relatively small and mobile – an easy way for genetic information to spread between bacteria. MCR-1 raises concern because it provides bacteria resistance against the last-resort antibiotic colistin. The CDC reports MCR-1 was found in both patients and livestock in the United States this summer.
David Weiss, director of Emory’s Antibiotic Resistance Center, and colleagues have a short letter in The Lancet Infectious Diseases showing that MCR-1 also confers resistance to an antimicrobial enzyme produced by our bodies called lysozyme. MCR-1-containing strains were 5 to 20 times less susceptible to lysozyme, they report.
This suggests that the pressure of fighting the host immune system may select for MCR-1 to stick around, even in the absence of colistin use, the authors say.
While the findings are straightforward in bacterial culture, Weiss cautions that there is not yet evidence showing that this mechanism occurs in live hosts. For those that really want to get alarmed, he also calls attention to a recent Nature Microbiology paper describing a hybrid plasmid with both MCR-1 and resistance to carbapenem, another antibiotic.

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Let’s not elope

Elopement may sound cute, because the word evokes a starry-eyed couple running away to get married. Elopement also refers to when a child runs or wanders from a safe, supervised environment. It can be a worrisome concern among the parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder and/or intellectual disability.

Here is a straightforward post from Seattle Children’s on elopement. Cathy Rice, now director of Emory Autism Center and previously at the CDC, has published two papers on elopement.

This May, Nathan Call, director of Severe Behavior Programs at Marcus Autism Center, and colleagues published a retrospective review of their behavioral treatments for elopement, extending back to 2003. This is a companion to their 2015 analysis of treatment for pica, the ingestion of inedible substances. Call is also assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

He summarized their approach by saying: “Individualizing treatment based upon the reason each child elopes seems to work very well.” The paper makes it clear that the reasons for a child eloping were a mixed bag: for some it was “access to preferred tangible items,” for others it was access to attention or other reasons.

Elopement can be difficult to study scientifically because the consequences of just letting it happen may be disastrous. In an interview, Call described one child who was attracted by balloons. He eloped so readily that he had been struck by cars twice, one time because he was drawn to a balloon display at a nearby apartment complex.

The 11 children in the review were ages 5 to 12, and 7 had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder – others had Down syndrome or intellectual disability. Read more

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Background links on SIV remission Science paper

This was the first consistent demonstration of post-treatment immune control in monkeys infected with SIV, without previous vaccination. Long-term post-treatment control of HIV has been reported in only a handful of people treated soon after infection. To learn more, check out these links.

Transient SIVmac remission induced by TLR7 agonist, reported at 2016 CROI conference

Immune control of SIVagm, no antiretroviral drugs necessary. Model of “elite controllers.”

Immune clearance of SIVmac; prior CMV-based vaccination necessary.

Post-treatment control of HIV – VISCONTI study. Roundup of HIV remission cases, from Treatment Action Group. Read more

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A glimpse into the genetics of positive emotions


Happiness can be elusive, both in personal life and as a scientific concept. That’s why this paper, recently published in Molecular Psychiatry, seemed so striking.

A genome-wide association study of positive emotion identifies a genetic variant and a role for microRNAs.” Translation: a glimpse into the genetics of positive emotions.

Editorial note: Although the research team here is careful and confirms the findings in independent groups and in brain imaging and fear discrimination experiments, this is a preliminary result. More needs to be explored about how these genetic variants and others affect positive emotions.

“With relatively few studies on genetic underpinnings of positive emotions, we face the challenges of a nascent research area,” the authors write.

Perhaps ironically, the finding comes out of the Grady Trauma Project, a study of inner-city residents exposed to high rates of abuse and violence, aimed at understanding mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability in depression and PTSD.

“Resilience is a multidimensional phenomenon, and we were looking at just one aspect of it,” says first author Aliza Wingo. She worked with Kerry Ressler , now at Harvard, and Tanja Jovanovic and other members of the Grady Trauma Project team.

“Positive affect” is what the team was measuring, through responses on questionnaires. And the questions are asking for the extent that respondents feel a particular positive emotion in general, rather than that day or that week. Read more

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Gestational age estimated via DNA methylation

Researchers have developed a method for estimating developmental maturity of newborns. It is based on tracking DNA methylation, a structural modification of DNA, whose patterns change as development progresses before birth.

The new method could help doctors assess developmental maturity in preterm newborns and make decisions about their care, or estimate the time since conception for a woman who does not receive prenatal care during pregnancy. As a research tool, the method could help scientists study connections between the prenatal environment and health in early childhood and adulthood.

How advanced is the development of a newborn, possibly preterm baby? Geneticists have developed a method for estimating gestational age by looking at DNA methylation.

The study, led by Alicia Smith, PhD and Karen Conneely, PhD, used blood samples from more than 1,200 newborns in 15 cohorts from around the world. The results are published in Genome Biology.

Smith is an associate professor and vice chair of research for the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics in the School of Medicine, and Conneely is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Genetics. The first author, Anna Knight, is a graduate student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology Program.

Gestational age, is normally estimated by obstetricians using ultrasound during the first trimester, by asking a pregnant woman about her last menstrual period, or by examining the baby at birth. Ultrasound is considered to be the most precise estimate of gestational age. This work extends upon earlier studies of DNA methylation patterns that change over development and predict age and age-related health conditions in children and adults.

The Emory team gathered DNA methylation data from previous studies examining live births and health outcomes, and used an unbiased statistical learning approach to select 148 DNA methylation sites out of many thousands in the genome. By examining methylation at those sites, gestational age could be accurately estimated between 24 and 44 weeks, the authors report. The median difference between age determined by DNA methylation and age determined by an obstetrician estimate was approximately 1 week.

The researchers also found that the difference between a newborn’s age predicted by DNA methylation and by an obstetrician may be another indicator of developmental maturity, and is correlated with birthweight, commonly used as an indicator of perinatal health. Read more

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Strength tests for platelets

Bleeding disorders could one day be diagnosed by putting platelets through strength tests, researchers have proposed.

Biomedical engineers from Emory and Georgia Tech have devised a microfluidic testing ground where platelets can demonstrate their strength by squeezing two protein dots together. Imagine rows and rows of strength testing machines from a carnival, but very tiny. Platelets are capable of exerting forces that are several times larger, in relation to their size, in comparison with muscle cells.

After a blood clot forms, it contracts, promoting wound closure and restoration of normal blood flow. This process can be deficient in a variety of blood clotting disorders. Previously, it was difficult to measure individual platelet’s contributions to contraction, because clots’ various components got in the way.

The prototype diagnostic tools are described in Nature Materials.


Top: platelets exert their strength. Bottom left: red = platelets, green = fibrinogen dots. Bottom right: size of actual device.

“We discovered that platelets from some patients with bleeding disorders are ‘wimpier’ than platelets from healthy people,” says Wilbur Lam, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “Our device may function as a new physics-based method to test for bleeding disorders, complementary to current methods.”

The first author of the paper is instructor David Myers, PhD. Lam is also a physician in the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Collaborators at North Carolina State University led by Ashley Brown, PhD, contributed to testing the device.

The scientists infer how strong or wimpy someone’s platelets are by measuring how far the protein dots move, taking a picture of the rows of dots, and then analyzing the picture on a computer. The dots are made of fibrinogen, a sticky protein that is the precursor for fibrin, which forms a mesh of insoluble strands in a blood clot.

In addition to detecting problems with platelet contraction in patients with known inherited disorders such as Wiskott Aldrich syndrome, Myers, Lam and colleagues could also see differences in some patients who had bleeding symptoms, but who performed normally on standard diagnostic tests. Read more

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Tapping evolution to improve biotech products

Scientists can improve protein-based drugs by reaching into the evolutionary past, a paper published this week in Nature Biotechnology proposes.

As a proof of concept for this approach, the research team from Emory, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Georgia Tech showed how “ancestral sequence reconstruction” or ASR can guide engineering of the blood clotting protein known as factor VIII, which is deficient in the inherited disorder hemophilia A.


Structure of Factor VIII

Other common protein-based drugs include monoclonal antibodies, insulin, human growth hormone and white blood cell stimulating factors given to cancer patients. The authors say that ASR-based engineering could be applied to other recombinant proteins produced outside the human body, as well as gene therapy.

It has been possible to produce human factor VIII in recombinant form since the early 1990s. However, current factor VIII products still have problems: they don’t last long in the blood, they frequently stimulate immune responses in the recipient, and they are difficult and costly to manufacture.

Experimental hematologist and gene therapist Chris Doering, PhD and his colleagues already had some success in addressing these challenges by filling in some of the sequence of human factor VIII with the same protein from pigs.

“We hypothesized that human factor VIII has evolved to be short lived in the blood to reduce the risk of thrombosis,” Doering says. “And we reasoned that by going even farther back in evolutionary history, it should be possible to find more stable, potent relatives.”

Doering is associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The first author of the paper is former Molecular and Systems Pharmacology graduate student Philip Zakas, PhD.

Doering’s lab teamed up with Trent Spencer, PhD, director of cell and gene therapy for the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and Eric Gaucher, PhD, associate professor of biological sciences at Georgia Tech, who specializes in ASR. (Gaucher has also worked with Emory biochemist Eric Ortlund – related item on ASR from Gaucher)

ASR involves reaping the recent harvest of genome sequences from animals as varied as mice, cows, goats, whales, dogs, cats, horses, bats and elephants. Using this information, scientists reconstruct a plausible ancestral sequence for a protein in early mammals. They then tweak the human protein, one amino acid building block at a time, toward the ancestral sequence to see what kinds of effects the changes could have. Read more

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