Connections between starvation and immunological memory

Focus on autophagy's functions in memory T cells

Effects of cocaine exposure in adolescent rodents

The effects on neurons are like losing entire branches from a tree, neuroscientists are finding

Frailty: we know it when we can measure it

Look beyond the cane. Emory researchers are seeking to define and measure frailty, to aid in surgery-related decision-making.

Connections between starvation and immunological memory

Researchers at Emory have been revealing several connections between cells’ responses to starvation and immunological memory. The latest example of this is a paper in Nature Immunology from Rafi Ahmed’s lab, showing that the cellular process of autophagy (literally: self-consumption) is essential for forming and maintaining memory T cells.

This finding has some practical implications for vaccination and could point the way to additives that could boost vaccine effectiveness in elderly humans. Researchers at Oxford have demonstrated that autophagy is diminished in T cells from aged mice, and T cell responses could be boosted in older mice using the autophagy-inducing compound spermidine. Read more

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Effects of cocaine exposure in adolescent rodents

Much of neuroscientist Shannon Gourley’s work focuses on the idea that adolescence is a vulnerable time for the developing brain. She and graduate student Lauren DePoy recently published a paper in Frontiers in Pharmacology showing that in adolescent rodents, cocaine exposure can cause the loss of dendritic arbors in part of the brain important for decision-making.

The researchers examined neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain thought to be important for “linking reward to hedonic experience.” It was known that stimulants such as cocaine can cause the loss of dendritic spines: small protrusions that are critical for communication and interaction between neurons.

“To make an analogy, it’s like a tree losing some of its leaves,” Gourley writes. “Lauren’s work shows for the first time that if cocaine is given in adolescence, it can cause the loss of dendrite arbors – as if entire branches are being cut from the tree.”

The mice are exposed to cocaine over the course of five days in early adolescence, and then their behavior is studied in adulthood. This level of cocaine exposure leads to impairments in instrumental task reversal, a test where mice need to change their habits (which chamber they poke their noses into) to continue receiving food pellets.

The findings suggest a partial explanation for the increased risk of dependence in people who start using cocaine during adolescence.

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Frailty: we know it when we can measure it

One of Lab Land’s regular features is a post exploring a biomedical term that seems to be appearing frequently in connection with Emory research. This month I’d like to focus on frailty, which has been an important concept in treating elderly patients for some time. (This piece in The Atlantic nudged me into it.) Assessing frailty is emerging as a way for surgeons to predict post-operative complications.

Several teams of researchers have been trying to develop a standardized way of measuring frailty to aid in weighing the risks and benefits of surgery. Frailty may seem like a subjective quality (echoing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s remarks on obscenity: “I know it when I see it”) but if frailty can be defined objectively, doctors and patients can use it to help in decision-making.

Frailty can be thought of as a decrease in physiological reserve or a decrease in the ability to recover from an infection or injury. Much of the credit for developing the concept of frailty should go to Linda Fried, now dean of Columbia’s school of public health. While at Johns Hopkins, her team developed the Hopkins Frailty Score: a composite based on recent weight loss, self-reported exhaustion, low daily activity levels, low grip strength and slow gait. Read more

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The other “cho-” cardiovascular disease biomarker

Quick, what biomarker whose name starts with “cho-” is connected with cardiovascular disease? Very understandable if your first thought is “cholesterol.” Today I’d like to shift focus to a molecule with a similar name, but a very different structure: choline.

Choline, a common dietary lipid component and an essential nutrient, came to prominence in cardiology research in 2011 when researchers at the Cleveland Clinic found that choline and its relatives can contribute to cardiovascular disease in a way that depends upon intestinal bacteria. In the body, choline is part of two phospholipids that are abundant in cell membranes, and is also a precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Some bacteria can turn choline (and also carnitine) into trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), high levels of which predict cardiovascular disease in humans. TMAO in turn seems to alter how inflammatory cells take up cholesterol and lipids.

Researchers at Emory arrived at choline metabolites and their connection to atherosclerosis by another route. Hanjoong Jo and his colleagues have been productively probing the mechanisms of atherosclerosis with an animal model. Very briefly: inducing disturbed blood flow in mice, in combination with a high fat diet, can result in atherosclerotic plaque formation within a few weeks. Jo’s team has used this model to examine changes in gene activation, microRNAs, DNA methylation, and now, metabolic markers.

Talking about this study at Emory’s Clinical Cardiovascular seminar on Friday, metabolomics specialist Dean Jones said he was surprised by the results, which were recently published by the American Journal of Physiology (to be precise, their ‘omics journal). The lead author is instructor Young-Mi Go. Read more

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Going meta

Just before Thanksgiving, Slate writer Katy Waldman had a piece summarizing the growing body of evidence that linguistic metaphors reflect how we actually use our brains.

Emory neuroscientist Krish Sathian and his colleagues have been major contributors to this field (“conceptual metaphor theory”). In 2012, he and Simon Lacey published their brain imaging study, which found that when people listened to sentences involving touch metaphors (“having a rough day”), the parts of the brain involved in the sense of touch were activated. NPR’s Jon Hamilton talked about these findings with him in 2013.

At the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting, Sathian discussed his team’s ongoing work on how the brain processes metaphors that make references to body parts (head, face, arm, hand, leg, foot), as part of a nano symposium on language.

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Strategy to defend vs double hit at beginning of life

Chorioamnionitis is a complication of pregnancy: inflammation of the membranes surrounding the fetus, caused by a bacterial infection. It has the potential to inflict damage to the brain of the fetus, especially when combined with fetal hypoxia, and is a known risk factor for developing cerebral palsy.

Chia-Yi (Alex) Kuan and his team, who study fetal brain injury in the Department of Pediatrics, have a new paper in Journal of Neuroscience on a strategy for inhibiting fetal brain inflammation. Postdoctoral fellows Dianer Yang, Yu-Yo Sun and Siddhartha Kumar Bhaumik are co-first authors.

The researchers show that a type of immune cells called Th17 cells seems to be driving inflammation because the rest of the fetal immune system is still immature. A marker of Th17 cells is elevated in blood samples from human infants with chorioamnionitis, the researchers found. Th17 cells are thought to be important for both autoimmunity and anti-microbial responses.

A drug called fingolimod, which stops immune cells from circulating out of the lymph nodes, was effective in reducing inflammation-induced fetal brain injury in animal models. Fingolimod has been approved by the FDA for use with multiple sclerosis and has been studied in clinical trials of kidney transplantation. The authors write that it may be a potential add-on to hypothermia as a treatment for infants in danger of hypoxia + infection-induced brain damage.

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In landmark study of cell therapy for heart attack, more cells make a difference

Patients who receive more cells get significant benefits. That’s a key lesson emerging from a clinical trial that was reported this week at the American Heart Association meeting in Chicago.

In this study, doctors treated heart attack patients with their own bone marrow cells, selected for their healing potential and then reinjected into the heart, in an effort to improve the heart’s recovery. In the PreSERVE-AMI phase II trial, physicians from 60 sites (author list) treated 161 patients, making the study one of the largest to assess cell therapy for heart attacks in the United States. The study was sponsored by NeoStem, Inc.

“This was an enormous undertaking, one that broke new ground in terms of assessing cell therapy rigorously,” says the study’s principal investigator, Arshed Quyyumi, MD, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and co-director of the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute. “We made some real progress in determining the cell type and doses that can benefit patients, in a group for whom the risks of progression to heart failure are high.” Read more

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Cell death drug discovery: come at the king, you best not miss

It may seem like a stretch to compare an enzyme to a notorious criminal, especially one as distinctive as Omar Little, a character from the HBO drama The Wire played by Michael Kenneth Williams.

But stick with me, I’ll explain.

TheWire-OmarLittle2-Portable

Omar is a stick-up man who robs street-level drug dealers. When drug dealer henchmen Stinkum and Weebay ambush him, they are unsuccessful and Stinkum is killed. Omar tells Weebay, who is hiding behind a car: “Come at the king, you best not miss.”

At Emory, Ed Mocarski, Bill Kaiser and colleagues at GlaxoSmithKline have been studying an enzyme called RIP3. RIP3 is the king of a form of programmed cell death called necroptosis. RIP3 is involved in killing cells as a result of several inflammation-, infection- or injury-related triggers, so inhibitors of RIP3 could be useful in modulating inflammation in many diseases.

In a new Molecular Cell paper, Mocarski, Kaiser and their co-authors lay out what happened when they examined the effects of several compounds that inhibit RIP3 in cell culture. These compounds stopped necroptosis, but unexpectedly, they unleashed apoptosis, another form of programmed cell death.  Read more

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Breaking the rules: flagellin vs rotavirus

Flagellin is a bacterial protein that activates the innate immune system. Its name comes from flagella, the whips many bacteria use to propel themselves.

On Thursday, a team of researchers led by immunologist Andrew Gewirtz reported in Science that treatment with flagellin can prevent or cure rotavirus infection in animals. Rotavirus infection is one of the most common causes of severe diarrhea and is a major cause of death for children in developing countries.

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Andrew Gewirtz, PhD

Gewirtz’s lab is now at Georgia State, but he and his colleagues initiated this research while at Emory and several co-authors are affliliated with Emory, including immunologist Ifor Williams.

These findings are remarkable for several reasons. One is: give the immune system something from bacteria, and it’s better at fighting a virus? As Gewirtz says in a GSU news release: “It’s analogous to equipping an NFL defense with baseball bats. Blatant violation of all the rules but yet, at least in this case, very effective.”

For me, what was most surprising about this paper was that treatment with flagellin, or immune signaling proteins activated by flagellin, can get mice with severely impaired immune systems – no T cells or B cells at all — to evict rotavirus. These are mice that have to be reared under special conditions because they are vulnerable to other infections. Interferons, well-known antiviral signaling molecules, are also not involved in resisting or evicting rotavirus infection, the researchers found. Read more

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Paul Offit: rock star of vaccine advocacy

This piece in the Los Angeles Times gives a helpful preview of what Paul Offit’s talk at Emory next week may be like. He also gave a keynote speech at the Association for Health Care Journalists meeting this spring.

Offit is the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is speaking at noon at the Health Sciences Research Building Auditorium on Nov. 18.

Offit is also speaking that morning at Childrens’ Scottish Rite hospital on the 1991 measles outbreak in Philadelphia. The emails I’ve been getting for the noon event ask people to register.

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