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Zhe Han

$2M NIH grant for treating disease linked to APOL1

Zhe Han

Children’s researcher Zhe Han, Ph.D., has received a $2 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study new approaches to treat kidney disease linked to inheriting Apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) risk alleles. These risk alleles are particularly common among persons of recent African descent, and African Americans are disproportionately affected by the increased risk in kidney disease associated with these risk alleles.

Han, an associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, has established a leading research program that uses the fruit fly Drosophila as a model system to study how genetic mutations lead to disease.

Drosophila is a very basic model, but studies in the fly have led to major breakthroughs in understanding fundamental biological processes that underlie health and disease in humans,” Han says. “Since coming to Children’s National five years ago, I have focused a significant part of my research studying particular fly cells called nephrocytes that carry out many of the important roles of human kidney glomeruli, units within the kidney where blood is cleaned. Working together with clinician colleagues here, we have demonstrated that these Drosophila cells can be used to very efficiently study different types of renal disease caused by genetic mutations.”

The APOL1 risk alleles are genetic variants, termed G1 and G2, found almost exclusively in people of African ancestry and can lead to a four-fold higher risk of end-stage kidney disease, the last of five stages of chronic kidney disease. Exactly how inheriting these risk alleles increases the risk of kidney disease remains an unanswered question and the focus of considerable research activity. Han’s laboratory has developed a Drosophila model of APOL1-linked renal disease by producing the G1 and G2 forms of APOL1 specifically in nephrocytes. This led to defects in fly renal cells that strikingly overlap with disease-associated changes in experimental model and human kidney cells expressing APOL1 risk alleles.

The new NIH award will fund large-scale screening and functional testing to identify new treatment targets and new drugs to treat kidney disease linked to APOL1. Using a genetic screening approach, Han’s lab will identify nephrocyte “modifier” genes that interact with APOL1 proteins and counter the toxic effects of risk-associated G1 and G2 variants.

The team also will identify nephrocyte genes that are turned on or off in the presence of APOL1 risk alleles, and confirm that such “downstream” APOL1-regulated genes are similarly affected in experimental model and human kidney cells. The potential of the newly identified “modifier” and “downstream” genes to serve as targets of novel therapeutic interventions will be experimentally tested in fly nephrocytes in vivo and in cultured mammalian kidney cells.

Finally, the Drosophila model will be used as a drug screening platform for in vivo evaluation of positive “hits” from a cell-based APOL1 drug screening study in order to identify compounds that are most effective with the fewest side effects.

“These types of studies can be most efficiently performed in Drosophila,” Han adds.  “They take advantage of the speed and low cost of the fly model system and the amazing array of well-established, sophisticated genetic tools available for the fly. Using this model to elucidate human disease mechanisms and to identify new effective therapies has truly become my research passion.”

Sen Chandra Sreetama and Jyoti K Jaiswal

Modified glucocorticoid stabilizes dysferlin-deficient muscle cell membrane in experimental models

Sen Chandra Sreetama and Jyoti K Jaiswal

Limb girdle muscular dystrophy type 2B (LGMD2B) – a disease so rare that researchers aren’t even sure how many people it affects – is characterized by chronic muscle inflammation and progressively weakened muscles in the pelvis and shoulder girdle. It can affect able-bodied people during their childbearing years and makes it difficult to tiptoe, walk, run or rise unaided from a squat. Ultimately, many with the muscle-wasting condition require wheelchair assistance. There is no therapy approved by the Food and Drug Administration for this condition.

In a head-to-head trial between the conventional glucocorticoid, prednisolone, and a modified glucocorticoid, vamorolone, in experimental models of LGMD2B, vamorolone improved dysferlin-deficient muscle cell membrane stability and repair. This correlated with increased muscle strength and decreased muscle degeneration, according to a Children’s-led study published online Aug. 27, 2018, in Molecular Therapy. By contrast, prednisolone worsened muscle weakness, impaired muscle repair and increased myofiber atrophy.

“These two steroids differ by only two chemical groups,” says Jyoti K. Jaiswal, MSC, Ph.D., a principal investigator at Children’s National Health System and senior study author. “One made muscle repair better. The other made muscle repair worse or about the same as untreated experimental models. This matches experience in the clinic as patients with LGMD2B experienced increased muscle weakness after being prescribed conventional glucocorticoids, such as prednisolone.”

Healthy muscle cells rely on the protein dysferlin to properly repair the sarcolemmal membrane, a cell membrane specialized for muscle cells that serves a vital role in ensuring that muscle fibers are strong enough and have the necessary resources to contract. Mutations in the DYSF gene that produces this essential protein causes LGMD2B.

Jaiswal likens the plasma membrane to a balloon that sits atop the myofiber, a long cell that when healthy can flex and contract. If, in the process of myofiber contraction, the plasma membrane experiences anything out of sync or overly stressful, it develops a tear that needs to be quickly sealed. An intact balloon keeps air inside; tear it, and air escapes. When the plasma membrane tears, calcium from the outside leaks in, causing the muscle cell to collapse into a ball and die. The body contends with the dead cell by breaking it up into fragments and sending in inflammatory cells to clear the debris.

Lack of dysferlin is associated with increased lipid mobility in the LGMD2B cell membrane

Lack of dysferlin is associated with increased lipid mobility in the limb girdle muscular dystrophy type 2B (LGMD2B) cell membrane, which is further increased by injury and prednisolone treatment, causing failure of these cells to undergo repair. By contrast, vamorolone treatment stabilizes the LGMD2B muscle cell membrane to near healthy cell level, enabling repair of injured cells.

The study team got the idea for the current research project during a previous study of the experimental treatment vamorolone for a different type of muscular dystrophy. “In Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), treatment with vamorolone not only reduced inflammation, but the membranes of muscle fibers were stabilized. That was the team’s ah-hah moment,” he says.

Three different doses of vamorolone were tested on cells derived from patients with LGMD2B with higher cell membrane repair efficacy seen with rising treatment dose. The dysferlinopathic experimental models were treated for three months with daily doses of cherry syrup laced with either 30 mg/kg of vamorolone or prednisolone or cherry syrup alone as the placebo arm.

“Right now there are zero treatments,” he says. People with LGMD2B turn to rehabilitative therapies and movement aids to cope with loss of mobility. Doctors are cautioned not to prescribe steroids. Jaiswal says many patients with LGMD2B grew up doing strenuous exercise, former athletes whose first indication of a problem was muscle cramping and pain. How this progresses to muscle weakness and loss is an area of active research in Jaiswal’s lab. “While additional research is needed, our findings here suggest that modified steroids such as vamorlone may be an option for some patients,” Jaiswal says.

“There is a nuance here: In addition to genomic effects, steroids also have physical effects on the cell membrane which may make some of the approved steroids ‘good’ steroids for dysferlinopathy that could selectively be used for this disease,” adds Sen Chandra Sreetama, lead study author.  Further research could indicate whether vamorolone, which is in Phase II human clinical trials for DMD, or any off-the-shelf drug could slow decline in muscle function for patients with LGMD2B.

Additional Children’s study authors include Goutam Chandra; Jack H. Van der Meulen; Mohammad Mahad Ahmad; Peter Suzuki; Shivaprasad Bhuvanendran; and Kanneboyina Nagaraju and Eric P. Hoffman, both of ReveraGen BioPharma.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the Clark Charitable Foundation; Muscular Dystrophy Association, under award number MDA277389; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, under award number R01AR055686; National Institutes of Health (NIH), under award numbers K26OD011171 and R24HD050846; and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under NIH award number 1U54HD090257.

Baby with Cleft Palate

Understanding genetic synergy in cleft palate

Baby with Cleft Palate

Like mechanics fixing a faulty engine, Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., says researchers will not be able to remedy problems related to IRF6, a gene implicated in cleft palate, until they better understand how the gene works.

Like all of the individual elements of fetal development, palate growth is a marvel of nature. In part of this process, ledges of tissue on the sides of the face grow downwards on each side of the tongue, then upward, fusing at the midline at the top of the mouth. The vast majority of the time, this process goes correctly. However, some part of it goes awry for the 2,650 babies born in the United States each year with cleft palates and the thousands more born worldwide with the defect.

For nearly two decades, researchers have known that a gene known as IRF6 is involved in palate formation. Studies have shown that this gene contributes about 12 percent to 18 percent of the risk of cleft palate, more than any other gene identified thus far. IRF6 is active in epithelial tissues – those that line cavities and surfaces throughout the body – including the periderm, a tissue that lines the mouth cavity and plays an important role during development.

According to Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., a child neurology fellow at Children’s National Health System, the periderm acts like a nonstick layer, preventing the tongue or other structures from adhering to the growing palate and preventing it from sealing at the midline. While researchers have long suspected that IRF6 plays a strong role in promoting this nonstick quality, exactly how it exerts its influence has not been clear.

“Gaining a better understanding of this gene might help us to eventually address deficits or perturbations in the system that creates the palate,” Dr. Kousa says. “Like a mechanic fixing a faulty engine, we will not be able to remedy problems related to this gene until we know how the gene works.”

Youssef Kousa

“Gaining a better understanding of this gene might help us to eventually address deficits or perturbations in the system that creates the palate,” Dr. Kousa says. “Like a mechanic fixing a faulty engine, we will not be able to remedy problems related to this gene until we know how the gene works.”

In a study published July 19, 2017 by the Journal of Dental Research, Dr. Kousa and colleagues seek to decipher one piece of this puzzle by investigating how this key gene might interact with others that are active during fetal development. The researchers were particularly interested in genes that work together in a cascade of activity known as the tyrosine kinase receptor signaling pathway.

Because this pathway includes a large group of genes, Dr. Kousa and colleagues reasoned that they could answer whether IRF6 interacts with this pathway by looking at whether the gene interacts with the last member of the cascade, a gene called SPRY4. To do this, the researchers worked with experimental models that had mutations in IRF6, SPRY4 or both. If these two genes interact, the scientists hypothesized, carrying mutations in both genes at the same time should result in a dramatically different outcome compared with animals that carried mutations in just one gene.

Using selective breeding techniques, the researchers created animals that had mutations in either of these genes or in both. Their results suggest that IRF6 and SPRY4 indeed do interact: Significantly more of the oral surface was adhered to the tongue during fetal development in experimental models that had mutations in both genes compared with those that had just one single gene mutated. Examining the gene activity in the periderm cells of these affected animals, the researchers found that doubly mutated experimental models also had decreased activity in a third gene known as GRHL3, which also has been linked with cleft lip and palate.

Dr. Kousa says the research team plans to continue exploring this interaction to better understand the flow of events that lead from perturbations in these genes to formation of cleft palate. Some of the questions they would like to answer include exactly which gene or genes in the tyrosine kinase receptor signaling pathway specifically interact with IRF6 – since SPRY4 represents just the end of that pathway, others genes earlier in the pathway are probably the real culprits responsible for driving problems in palate formation. They also will need to verify if these interactions take place in humans in the same way they occur in preclinical models.

Eventually, Dr. Kousa adds, the findings could aid in personalized prenatal counseling, diagnosis and screening related to cleft palate, as well as preventing this condition during pregnancy. Someday, doctors might be able to advise couples who carry mutations in these genes about whether they are more likely to have a baby with a cleft palate or determine which select group of pregnancies need closer monitoring. Additionally, because research suggests that GRHL3 might interact with nutrients, including inositol, it might be possible to prevent some cases of cleft palate by taking additional supplements during pregnancy.

“The more we know about how these genes behave,” Dr. Kousa says, “the more we can potentially avoid fetal palate development going down the wrong path.”