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newborn in incubator

How EPO saves babies’ brains

newborn in incubator

Researchers have discovered that treating premature infants with erythropoietin can help protect and repair their vulnerable brains.

The drug erythropoietin (EPO) has a long history. First used more than three decades ago to treat anemia, it’s now a mainstay for treating several types of this blood-depleting disorder, including anemia caused by chronic kidney disease, myelodysplasia and cancer chemotherapy.

More recently, researchers discovered a new use for this old drug: Treating premature infants to protect and repair their vulnerable brains. However, how EPO accomplishes this feat has remained unknown. New genetic analyses presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2018 annual meeting that was conducted by a multi-institutional team that includes researchers from Children’s National show that this drug may work its neuroprotective magic by modifying genes essential for regulating growth and development of nervous tissue as well as genes that respond to inflammation and hypoxia.

“During the last trimester of pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes tremendous growth. When infants are born weeks before their due dates, these newborns’ developing brains are vulnerable to many potential insults as they are supported in the neonatal intensive care unit during this critical time,” says An Massaro, M.D., an attending neonatologist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research. “EPO, a cytokine that protects and repairs neurons, is a very promising therapeutic approach to support the developing brains of extremely low gestational age neonates.”

The research team investigated whether micro-preemies treated with EPO had distinct DNA methylation profiles and related changes in expression of genes that regulate how the body responds to such environmental stressors as inflammation, hypoxia and oxidative stress.  They also investigated changes in genes involved in glial differentiation and myelination, production of an insulating layer essential for a properly functioning nervous system. The genetic analyses are an offshoot of a large, randomized clinical trial of EPO to treat preterm infants born between 24 and 27 gestational weeks.

The DNA of 18 newborns enrolled in the clinical trial was isolated from specimens drawn within 24 hours of birth and at day 14 of life. Eleven newborns were treated with EPO; a seven-infant control group received placebo.

DNA methylation and whole transcriptome analyses identified 240 candidate differentially methylated regions and more than 50 associated genes that were expressed differentially in infants treated with EPO compared with the control group. Gene ontology testing further narrowed the list to five candidate genes that are essential for normal neurodevelopment and for repairing brain injury:

“These findings suggest that EPO’s neuroprotective effect may be mediated by epigenetic regulation of genes involved in the development of the nervous system and that play pivotal roles in how the body responds to inflammation and hypoxia,” Dr. Massaro says.

In addition to Dr. Massaro, study co-authors include Theo K. Bammler, James W. MacDonald, biostatistician, Bryan Comstock, senior research scientist, and Sandra “Sunny” Juul, M.D., Ph.D., study principal investigator, all of University of Washington.

Kazue Hashimoto Torii

A brain’s protector may also be its enemy

Kazue Hashimoto Torii

By looking back to the earliest moments of embryonic brain development, Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D. and her collaborators sought to explain the molecular and cellular bases for complex congenital brain disorders that can result from exposure to harmful agents.

When the brain is exposed to an environmental stressor all is not immediately lost. Brain cells have mechanisms that protect them against the ravages of alcohol and other toxic substances. One of these is a protein the cells make, known as Heat Shock Factor 1 (Hsf1), which helps to shield them from damage. The fetal brain also can make Hsf1, which protects its particularly vulnerable cells from environmental stressors that pregnant mothers are exposed to during gestation.

However, a new study suggests that this system is not perfect. Research led by Children’s National Health System scientists suggests that when too much Hsf1 is produced, it actually can impair the brain during development. While this finding was made in a preclinical model, it raises questions about neural risks for human infants if their mothers drink alcohol in the first or second trimester of pregnancy.

When fetuses are chronically exposed to harmful agents such as alcohol, ethanol or methyl mercury in utero, the experience can negatively affect fetal brain development in unpredictable ways. Some fetal brains show little or no damage, while others suffer severe damage. By looking at the earliest moments of embryonic brain development, an international research team that includes five Children’s National authors sought to explain the molecular and cellular bases for complex congenital brain disorders that can result from exposure to such harmful agents.

“From a public health perspective, there is ongoing debate about whether there is any level of drinking by pregnant women that is ‘safe,’ ” says Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D., principal investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National and senior author of the paper published May 2 in Nature Communications. “We gave ethanol to pregnant preclinical models and found their offspring’s neural cells experienced widely differing responses to this environmental stress. It remains unclear which precise threshold of stress exposure represents the tipping point, transforming what should be a neuroprotective response into a damaging response. Even at lower levels of alcohol exposure, however, the risk for fetal neural cells is not zero,” Hashimoto-Torii adds.

The cerebral cortex – the thin outer layer of the cerebrum and cerebellum that enables the brain to process information – is particularly vulnerable to disturbances in the womb, the study authors write. To fend off insult, neural cells employ a number of self-preservation strategies, including launching the protective Hsf1-Heat shock protein (Hsp) signaling pathway that is used by a wide range of organisms, from single-cell microbes to humans. Developing fetuses activate Hsf1-Hsp signaling upon exposure to environmental stressors, some to no avail.

To help unravel the neurological mystery, the researchers used a method that allows a single molecule to fluoresce during stress exposure. They tapped specific environmental stressors, such as ethanol, hydrogen peroxide and methyl mercury – each of which are known to produce oxidative stress at defined concentrations. And, using an experimental model, they examined the Hsf1 activation pattern in the developing cerebral cortex by creating a marker, an encoding gene tagged with a type of fluorescent protein that makes it glow bright red.

“Our results suggest that heterogeneous events of abnormal brain development may occur probabilistically – which explains patterns of cortical malformations that vary with each individual, even when these individuals are exposed to similar levels of environmental stressors,” Hashimoto-Torii adds.

Among the more striking findings, neural cells with excessively high levels of Hsf1-Hsp activation due to ethanol exposure experience disruptions to normal development, with delayed migration by immature cortical neurons. For the fetal brain to develop normally, neurons need to migrate to precise places in the brain at just the right time to enable robust neural connections. When neurons fail to arrive at their destinations or get there too late, there can be gaps in the neural network, compromising efficient and effective communication across the brain’s various regions.

“Even a short period of Hsf1 overactivation during prenatal development causes critical neuronal migration deficiency. The severity of deficiency depends on the duration of Hsf1 overactivation,” Hashimoto-Torii says. “Expression patterns vary, however, across various tissues. Stochastic response within individual cells may be largely responsible for variability seen within tissue and organs.”

The research team found one bright spot: Cortical neurons that stalled due to lack of the microtubule-associated molecule Dcx were able to regain their ability to migrate properly when the gene was replenished after birth. A reduction in Hsf1 activity after birth, however, did not show the same ability to trigger the “reset” button on neural development.

“The finding suggests that genes other than microtubule-associated genes may play pivotal roles in ensuring that migrating neurons reach their assigned destinations in the brain at the right time – despite the added challenge of excessive Hsf1 activation,” according to Hashimoto-Torii.

Fetal Brain Cells

Tracking environmental stress damage in the brain

Fluorescence Reporter

A team led by Children’s National developed a fluorescence reporter system in an experimental model that can single out neurons that have survived prenatal damage but remain vulnerable after birth.

What’s known

When fetuses are exposed to environmental stressors, such as maternal smoking or alcohol consumption, radiation or too little oxygen, some of these cells can die. A portion of those that survive often have lingering damage and remain more susceptible to further environmental insults than healthy cells; however, researchers haven’t had a way to identify these weakened cells. This lack of knowledge has made it difficult to discover the mechanisms behind pathological brain development thought to arise from these very early environmental exposures, as well as ways to prevent or treat it.

What’s new

A team led by Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System, developed a marker that makes a protein known as Heat Shock Factor 1 glow red. This protein is produced in cells that become stressed through exposure to a variety of environmental insults. Gestation is a particularly vulnerable time for rapidly dividing nerve cells in the fetal brain. Tests showed that this marker worked not just on cells in petri dishes but also in an experimental model to detect brain cells that were damaged and remained vulnerable after exposure to a variety of different stressors. Tweaks to the system allowed the researchers to follow the progeny of cells that were affected by the initial stressor and track them as they divided and spread throughout the brain. By identifying which neurons are vulnerable, the study authors say, researchers eventually might be able to develop interventions that could slow or stop damage before symptoms arise.

Questions for future research

Q: How do different environmental insults damage brain cells during gestation?
Q: How does this damage translate into pathology in organisms as they mature?
Q: Do the progeny of damaged brain cells retain the same degree of damage as they divide and spread?
Q: Can this new detection system be used to find and track damage in other organs, such as the heart, eye and liver?

Source: Torii, M., S. Masanori, Y.W. Chang, S. Ishii, S.G. Waxman, J.D. Kocsis, P. Rakic and K. Hashimoto-Torii. “Detection of vulnerable neurons damaged by environmental insults in utero.” Published Dec. 22, 2016 by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1620641114