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Dr. Matthew Bramble, Vincent Kambale, and Neerja Vashist

Gut microbiome may impact susceptibility to konzo

Dr. Matthew Bramble, Vincent Kambale, and Neerja Vashist

From left to right: Dr. Matthew Bramble, Vincent Kambale, and Neerja Vashist. Here, the team is processing samples in the field collected from the study cohort prior to storage in liquid nitrogen. Bramble et al. Nature Communications (2021).

Differences between gut flora and genes from konzo-prone regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may affect the release of cyanide after poorly processed cassava is consumed, according to a study with 180 children. Cassava is a food security crop for over half a billion people in the developing world. Children living in high-risk konzo areas have high glucosidase (linamarase) microbes and low rhodanese microbes in their gut, which could mean more susceptibility and less protection against the disease, suggest Children’s National Hospital researchers who led the study published in Nature Communications.

Konzo is a severe, irreversible neurologic disease that results in paralysis. It occurs after consuming poorly processed cassava — a manioc root and essential crop for DRC and other low-income nations. Poorly processed cassava contains linamarin, a cyanogenic compound. While enzymes with glucosidase activity convert starch to simple sugars, they also break down linamarin, which then releases cyanide into the body.

Neerja Vashist learning how to make fufu

Neerja Vashist is learning how to make fufu. Fufu is a traditional food made from cassava flour, and the cassava flour used in the making of the fufu here has gone through the wetting method to further remove toxins from the cassava flour prior to consumption. Bramble et al. Nature Communications (2021).

“Knowing who is more at risk could result in targeted interventions to process cassava better or try to diversify the diet,” said Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National. “An alternative intervention is to modify the microbiome to increase the level of protection. This is, however, a difficult task which may have unintended consequences and other side effects.”

The exact biological mechanisms underlying konzo disease susceptibility and severity remained poorly understood until now. This is the first study to shed light on the gut microbiome of populations that rely on toxic cassava as their primary food source.

“While the gut microbiome is not the sole cause of disease given that environment and malnourishment play a role, it is a required modulator,” said Matthew S. Bramble, Ph.D., staff scientist at Children’s National. “Simply stated, without gut microbes, linamarin and other cyanogenic glucosides would pose little to no risk to humans.”

To understand the influence of a detrimental subsistence on the gut flora and its relationship to this debilitating multifactorial neurological disease, the researchers compared the gut microbiome profiles in 180 children from the DRC using shotgun metagenomic sequencing. This approach evaluates bacterial diversity and detects the abundance of microbes and microbial genes in various environments.

The samples were collected in Kinshasa, an urban area with diversified diet and without konzo; Masi-Manimba, a rural area with predominant cassava diet and low prevalence of konzo; and Kahemba, a region with predominant cassava diet and high prevalence of konzo.

Dr. Nicole Mashukano and Dr. Matthew Bramble wetting cassava flour

From left to right: Dr. Nicole Mashukano and Dr. Matthew Bramble. Dr. Mashukano leads the efforts in Kahemba to teach the wetting method to individuals in different health zones. The wetting method is used as an additional step to further detoxify toxins from cassava flour prior to consumption. Here, Dr. Mashukano and Dr. Bramble are spreading out the wet mixture of cassava flour and water into a thin layer on a tarp for drying in the sun, which allows cyanogen breakdown and release in the form of hydrogen cyanide gas. Bramble et al. Nature Communications (2021).

“This study overcame many challenges of doing research in low-resource settings,” said Desire Tshala-Katumbay, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., FANA, co-senior author and expert scientist at Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale in Kinshasa, DRC, and professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University. “It will open novel avenues to prevent konzo, a devastating disease for many children in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

For next steps, the researchers will study sibling pairs from konzo-prone regions of Kahemba where only one sibling is affected with the disease.

“Studying siblings will help us control for factors that cannot be controlled otherwise, such as the cassava preparation in the household,” said Neerja Vashist, Ph.D. candidate and research trainee at Children’s National. “In this work, each sample had approximately 5 million DNA reads each, so for our follow-up, we plan to increase that to greater than 40 million reads per sample and the overall study cohort size. This study design will allow us to confirm that the trends we observed hold on a larger scale, while enhancing our ability to comprehensively characterize the gut microbiome.”

Hands holding letters that spell autism

Gene associated with autism affects social interactions differently in males and females

Hands holding letters that spell autism

The loss function of a gene associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Foxp2, impacts brain circuits that control olfactory processing, social interaction, mating, aggressive and parental behaviors in a pre-clinical model. Sex differences were most notable in females with low social interaction and higher aggression behavior compared to males, suggesting ASD-like behavior in females, according to the study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

ASD affects social communication and behavior in approximately 1 in 68 people, many of the symptoms appear in the first two years of life, and the disorder is mostly seen in males. Recent studies suggest that FOXP2 mutations have been implicated in a subset of individuals with ASD.

“Our work provides insights into how this gene may function mechanistically to control social interactions in both males and females,” said Joshua Corbin, Ph.D., principal investigator at Children’s National Hospital and senior author. “Foxp2 is an autism susceptibility gene, thus potentially revealing insights into the neurobiological underpinnings of deficits in social communication in neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Dopamine (DA) also plays a role in motivation and reward-seeking behavior. Herrero et al. further found that patterns of Foxp2+ cell activation in the amygdala, a structure involved in social motivation, differed in females and males in response to DA, with greater activation in females. Although how this ties together with the function of Foxp2 in social behavior remains to be elucidated, this finding suggests an intriguing link between this important neuropeptide and Foxp2 function.

FOXP2 mutations in humans are associated with disorders affecting speech and language. The scientific community has extensively studied the Foxp2 gene in other brain regions, most notably those involved in language production, such as the cerebral cortex and basal ganglia (striatum). Still, little is known regarding the function of Foxp2 in male or female social behavior, which has a large amygdala component.

“Rational interventions for human disorders and diseases relies on an understanding of the underlying biology of these conditions,” said Corbin. “Our work presents an important step toward elucidating the genetic pathways required for neurotypical social behavior.”

To better understand the role that Foxp2 plays in the amygdala-linked social behaviors, the researchers used a comprehensive panel of behavioral tests in male and female subjects. The research team relied on visual observation and video recordings to collect and score the behavioral data, work that was conducted as part of Children’s National NIH funded DC-IDDRC.

The set of behavioral tests included a “social interaction assay” that utilized a 3-chamber device, an “olfactory habituation and discrimination assay,” which pooled several odors with a cotton swab and a “maternal aggression assay” that measured aggressive encounters of a lactating female to a male intruder.

The researchers also compared the ex vivo tissue samples of female and male subjects to assess protein changes in the amygdala that might affect the activation of DA pathways.

Schistosoma

Parasitic eggs trigger upregulation in genes associated with inflammation

Schistosoma

Of the 200 million people around the globe infected with Schistosomiasis, about 100 million of them were sickened by the parasite Schistosoma haematobium.

Of the 200 million people around the globe infected with Schistosomiasis, about 100 million of them were sickened by the parasite Schistosoma haematobium. As the body reacts to millions of eggs laid by the blood flukes, people can develop fever, cough and abdominal pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schistosomiasis triggered by S. haematobium can also include hematuria, bladder calcification and bladder cancer.

Despite the prevalence of this disease, there are few experimental models specifically designed to study it, and some tried-and-true preclinical models don’t display the full array of symptoms seen in humans. It’s also unclear how S. haematobium eggs deposited in the host bladder modulate local tissue gene expression.

To better understand the interplay between the parasite and its human host, a team led by Children’s National Hospital injected 6,000 S. haematobium eggs into the bladder wall of seven-week-old experimental models.

After four days, they isolated RNA for analysis, comparing differences in gene expression in various treatment groups, including those that had received the egg injection and experimental models whose bladders were not exposed to surgical intervention.

Using the Database for Annotation, Visualization and Integrated Discovery (DAVID) – a tool that helps researchers understand the biological meaning of a long list of genes – the team identified commonalities with other pathways, including malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and the p53 signaling pathway, the team recently presented during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2019 annual meeting. Some 325 genes were differentially expressed, including 34 genes in common with previous microarray data.

“Of particular importance, we found upregulation in genes associated with inflammation and fibrosis. We also now know that the body may send it strongest response on the first day it encounters a bolus of eggs,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of transitional urology at Children’s National, and the research project’s senior author. “Next, we need to repeat these experiments and further narrow the list of candidate genes to key genes associated with immunomodulation and bladder cancer.”

In addition to Dr. Hsieh, presentation co-authors include Lead Author Kenji Ishida, Children’s National; Evaristus Mbanefo and Nirad Banskota, National Institutes of Health; James Cody, Vigene Biosciences; Loc Le, Texas Tech University; and Neil Young, University of Melbourne.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award No. R01-DK113504.

tube labeled "CRISPR"

$2M from NIH to extract meaningful data from CRISPR screens

tube labeled "CRISPR"

Protein-coding genes comprise a mere 1% of DNA. While the other 99% of DNA was once derided as “junk,” it has become increasingly apparent that some non-coding genes enable essential cellular functions.

Wei Li, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., proposes to develop statistical and computational methods that sidestep existing hurdles that currently complicate genome-wide CRISPR/Cas9 screening. The National Institutes of Health has granted him $2.23 million in funding over five years to facilitate the systematic study of genes, non-coding elements and genetic interactions in various biological systems and disease types.

Right now, a large volume of screening data resides in the public domain, however it is difficult to compare data that is stored in one library with data stored at a different library. Over the course of the five-year project, Li aims to:

  • Improve functional gene identification from CRISPR screens.
  • Develop new analyses algorithms for screens targeting non-coding elements.
  • Study genetic interactions from CRISPR screens targeting gene pairs.

Ultimately, Li’s work will examine a range of disease types. Take cancer.

“There is abundant information already available in the public domain, like the Project Achilles  from the Broad Institute. However, no one is looking to see what is going in inside these tumors,” Li says. “Cancer is a disease of uncontrolled cell growth that makes tumors grow faster.”

Li and colleagues are going to ask which genes control this process by looking at genes that hit the brakes on cell growth as well as genes that pump the gas.

“You knock out one gene and then look: Does the cell grow faster or does it grow more slowly? If the cell grows more slowly, you know you are knocking out a gene that has the potential to stop tumor growth. If cells are growing faster, you know that you’re hitting genes that suppress cancer cell growth.”

In a nutshell, CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) screens knock out different genes and monitor changes in corresponding cell populations. When CRISPR first became popular, Li decided he wanted to do something with the technology. So, as a Postdoc at Harvard, he developed comprehensive computational algorithms for functional screens using CRISPR/Cas9.

To reach as many people as possible, he offered that MAGeCK/MAGeCK-VISPR software free to as many researchers as possible, providing source code and offering internet tutorials.

“So far, I think there are quite a lot of people using this. There have been more than 40,000 software downloads,” he adds. “It’s really exciting and revolutionary technology and, eventually, we hope the outcomes also will be exciting. We hope to find something really helpful for cancer patients.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number R01HG010753.

Zhe Han lab 2018

$2 million NIH grant to study nephrotic syndrome

Zhe Han lab 2018

A Children’s researcher has received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study nephrotic syndrome in Drosophila, a basic model system that has revealed groundbreaking insights into human health. The award for Zhe Han, Ph.D., an associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, is believed to be the first ever NIH Research Project grant (R01)  to investigate glomerular kidney disease using Drosophila. Nephrotic syndrome is mostly caused by damage of glomeruli, so it is equivalent to glomerular kidney disease.

“Children’s National leads the world in using Drosophila to model human kidney diseases,” Han says.

In order to qualify for the five-year funding renewal, Han’s lab needed to successfully accomplish the aims of its first five years of NIH funding.  During the first phase of funding, Han established that nephrocytes in Drosophila serve the same functions as glomeruli in humans, and his lab created a series of fly models that are relevant for human glomerular disease.

“Some 85 percent of the genes known to be involved in nephrotic syndrome are conserved from the fly to humans. They play similar roles in the nephrocyte as they play in the podocytes in human kidneys,” he adds.

Pediatric nephrotic syndrome is a constellation of symptoms that indicate when children’s kidneys are damaged, especially the glomeruli, units within the kidney that filter blood. Babies as young as 1 year old can suffer proteinuria, which is characterized by too much protein being released from the blood into the urine.

“It’s a serious disease and can be triggered by environmental factors, taking certain prescription medicines or inflammation, among other factors.  Right now, that type of nephrotic syndrome is mainly treated by steroids, and the steroid treatment works in many cases,” he says.

However, steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome occurs primarily due to genetic mutations that affect the kidney’s filtration system: These filters are either broken or the protein reabsorption mechanism is disrupted.

“When genetics is to blame, we cannot turn to steroids. Right now there is no treatment. And many of these children are too young to be considered for a kidney transplant,” he adds. “We have to understand exactly which genetic mutation caused the disease in order to develop a targeted treatment.”

With the new funding, Han will examine a large array of genetic mutations that cause nephrotic syndrome. He’s focusing his efforts on genes involved in the cytoskeleton, a network of filaments and tubules in the cytoplasm of living cells that help them to maintain shape and carry out important functions.

“Right now, we don’t really understand the cytoskeleton of podocytes – highly specialized cells that wrap around the capillaries of the glomerulus – because podocytes are difficult to access. To change a gene requires time and considerable effort in other experimental models. However, changing genes in Drosophila is very easy, quick and inexpensive. We can examine hundreds of genes involving the cytoskeleton and see how changing those genes affect kidney cell function,” he says.

Han’s lab already found that Coenzyme Q10, one of the best-selling nutrient supplements to support heart health also could be beneficial for kidney health. For the cytoskeleton, he has a different targeted medicine in mind to determine whether Rho inhibitors also could be beneficial for kidney health for patients with certain genetic mutations affecting their podocyte cytoskeleton.

“One particular aim of our research is to use the same strategy as we employed for the Coq2 gene to generate a personalized fly model for patients with cytoskeleton gene mutations and test potential target drugs, such as Rho inhibitors.” Han added. “As far as I understand, this is where the future of medicine is headed.”

Zhe Han

Research led by Zhe Han featured on cover of JASN, leading kidney disease journal

Journal of the American Society of Nephrology September 2017 cover

Coenzyme Q10, one of the best-selling nutrient supplements to support heart health also could be beneficial for kidney health, according to research conducted in transgenic fruit flies that was led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., associate professor at Children’s Center for Cancer and Immunology Research.

Nephrocytes, filtration kidney cells in Drosophila, require the Coq2 gene for protein reabsorption, toxin sequestration and critical cell ultrastructure.  Silencing the Coq2 gene results in aberrantly localized nephrocyte slit diaphragms and deformed lacunar channels, Han and co-authors found. Nephrocytes closely resemble the podocytes of the human kidney.

The research team’s paper, published online April 2017, this fall was featured on the cover of Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, the No. 1 kidney disease journal.

“I am honored that the JASN editors chose to feature my lab’s work on the cover of this prestigious journal,” Han says. “This underscores the utility of our gene-replacement approach, which silenced the fly homolog in the tissue of interest – here, the kidney cells – and provided a human gene to supply the silenced function.”

Clinicopathology of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma and its redefined genomic and epigenomic landscape

Dr. Nazarian's lab

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What’s Known
Fewer than 150 U.S. children per year are diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), one of the most lethal pediatric central nervous system cancers. Despite an increasing number of experimental therapies tested via clinical trials, more than 95 percent of these children die within two years of diagnosis. Molecular studies have yielded additional insight about DIPG, including that mutations in histone-encoding genes are associated with 70 percent of cases. Understanding mutations that drive tumors and the genomic landscape can help to guide development of targeted therapies.

What’s New: Frequently found genetic alterations prevalent in DIPGs

dipg-gene-mutations-and-biological-consequences

Source: Clinicopathology of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma and Its Redefined Genomic and Epigenomic Landscape.” E. Panditharatna, K. Yaeger, L.B. Kilburn, R.J. Packer, and J. Nazarian. Published by Cancer Genetics on May 1, 2015.