Stories about: Drug discovery

Rescuing intestinal stem cells from attack in diabetes

diabetic enteropathy and colonic stem cells
Blood levels of the hormone IGFBP3 (enterostaminine), shown here in green, are markedly elevated in people with longstanding type 1 diabetes and launch a lethal attack on intestinal stem cells. Adding a protein that soaks up the excess hormone restores normal stem cell function and could help prevent or treat diabetic enteropathy. (All images by Riseon)

Up to 80 percent of people with long-standing type 1 diabetes develop gastrointestinal symptoms—abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and fecal incontinence—that severely diminish quality of life. Recent evidence suggests that this condition, known as diabetic enteropathy, results from damage to the intestinal lining, but the details beyond that have been unclear.

A study in this week’s Cell Stem Cell, led by Paolo Fiorina, MD, PhD, now provides some answers. It demonstrates how diabetes can lead to destruction of the stem cells that maintain the intestinal lining, and identifies a potential drug that could protect these stem cells and prevent or treat diabetic enteropathy.

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Beth Stevens: A transformative thinker in neuroscience

When 2015 MacArthur “genius” grant winner Beth Stevens, PhD, began studying the role of glia in the brain in the 1990s, these cells—“glue” from the Greek—weren’t given much thought. Traditionally, glia were thought to merely protect and support neurons, the brain’s real players.

But Stevens, from the Department of Neurology and the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, has made the case that glia are key actors in the brain, not just caretakers. Her work—at the interface between the nervous and immune systems—is helping transform how neurologic disorders like autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia are viewed.

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Four emerging advances in childhood cancer

girl-in-jfcThe 20th century saw great strides in curing childhood cancer, thanks primarily to the discovery that broadly toxic chemotherapy agents could kill malignant cells. Once virtually incurable, pediatric cancer now has an overall long-term survival rate topping 80 percent.

In the 21st century, attention is turning to additional, less toxic developments in cancer therapy. Lisa Diller, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, cites four coming changes:

  • Precision medicine treatments targeting specific genetic and epigenetic pathways
  • Immunotherapy drugs gaining FDA approval
  • Innovations to reduce treatment toxicity
  • A stronger focus on improving survival of childhood cancer globally.

Read more on the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s website.

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Q + A: Scientist on a roller coaster

FriendThe twists and turns of Stephen Friend’s career are both dizzying and thrilling. In the early days, Stephen Friend, MD, PhD, CEO and co-founder of Sage Bionetworks, spent many a late night as a resident in the emergency room at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with Gary Fleischer, MD, current pediatrician-in-chief at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Friend later wound up at Boston Children’s as well, where he did his pediatric hematology-oncology fellowship and later, as part of the faculty, helped co-lead the team that identified the first tumor suppressor at Boston Children’s. A few years later, Friend left academia to pursue his passion in a startup and later engineered a landing at Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit focused on patient engagement and open science in the research process. The Resilience Project, one of Sage’s research initiatives, analyzes DNA from healthy volunteers to discover rare mutations that protect resilient people from serious childhood illnesses.

In November, Friend will be on the Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards stage as a panelist on the Patient Engagement in a Big Data World panel. He sat down with Vector to share his thoughts on working outside one’s comfort zone, suspending disbelief, supporting emerging innovators and more.

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Focused genetic testing approach ends a 32-year diagnostic journey

Claritas-JackieSmith3-croppedSome 7,500 rare disorders are known to be caused by single-gene mutations. Most of these disorders first appear at birth or in childhood, and for about half, the responsible gene has been identified. Yet, on average, families with rare disorders spend 12 years searching before getting a correct diagnosis.

Jackie Smith, a 35-year-old mother of two, searched for 32 years for the cause of her muscular weakness. Her parents knew something was wrong soon after she was born. At first, because her ankles turned in, they thought she was bow-legged.

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Why does a new class of drugs work so well against melanoma?

nivolumab, pembrolizumab and melanoma
Anti-PD-1 antibodies may deliver a one-two punch in melanoma

Recent clinical trials for patients with advanced melanoma have found that a new class of drugs—anti-PD-1 antibodies—can elicit an unprecedented response rate. In the last year, the FDA gave accelerated approval to two anti-PD-1 antibodies, nivolumab and pembrolizumab, for patients with advanced melanoma (including Jimmy Carter) who are no longer responding to other drugs. And there’s growing evidence that this class of drugs may be effective in treating other forms of cancer.

Anti-PD-1 antibodies target a receptor on activated T cells, known as the programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) receptor. Tumor cells stimulate this inhibitory receptor to dodge immune attack, whereas anti-PD-1 antibodies block the same pathway, “waking up” the immune cells so they can attack the cancer. The drugs have been hailed as one of the first cancer immunotherapy success stories.

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Solving puzzles with Cigall Kadoch

Cigali Kadoch-Rubiks cube-croppedGrowing up in the San Francisco area, Cigall Kadoch, PhD, had a passion for puzzles. The daughter of a Moroccan-born, Israeli-raised father and a mother from Michigan who together developed an interior design business, Kadoch excelled in school and pretty much everything else. Above all, she loved to solve brain-teasers.

For Kadoch, the Rubik’s cube represents a love of puzzles, as well as the structure of the protein complexes she studies in her research at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Dana-Farber Chief of Staff Stephen Sallan, MD, describes her as “addicted to discovery.”

In high school, however, Kadoch came up against a problem that defied solution. Breast cancer took the life of a beloved family caretaker who had nurtured her interests in science and nature. She knew little about cancer except that it took lives far too early.

“I was deeply saddened and very frustrated at my lack of understanding of what had happened,” recalls Kadoch. “I thought to myself, cancer is a puzzle that isn’t solved, let alone even well-defined, and I want to try. As naïve a statement as that was, it was a defining moment—one which I never could have predicted would actually shape my life’s efforts.”

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Supercharged marrow transplant: Zebrafish reveal drugs that aid engraftment

Zebrafish stem cell engraftment bone marrow
(Jonathan Henninger and Vera Binder)

Bone marrow transplantation, a.k.a. stem cell transplantation, can offer a cure for certain cancers, blood disorders, immune deficiencies and even metabolic disorders. But it’s a highly toxic procedure, especially when a closely matched marrow donor can’t be found. Using stem cells from umbilical cord blood banked after childbirth could open up many more matching possibilities, making transplantation safer.

Except for one problem. “Ninety percent of cord blood units can’t be used because they’re too small,” says Leonard Zon, MD, who directs the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children’s.

But what if the blood stem cells in those units could be supercharged to engraft more efficiently in the bone marrow and grow their numbers faster? That’s been the quest of the Zon lab for the past seven years, in partnership with a see-through zebrafish called Casper.

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Daniel Kohane, MD, PhD, at TEDMED: “Smart vehicles for safer medications”

“The drugs that I take don’t just go to the places in my body they’re supposed to go to do the things they do. They actually go everywhere. And what they do in those other places can be whatever.”

With those words, Daniel Kohane, MD, PhD—director of the Laboratory for Biomaterials and Drug Delivery at Boston Children’s Hospital—launched into a TEDMED talk about technologies that get drugs to where they need to go with much greater precision, like:

“Progress in this field is limited only by the imagination of the investigators and, to some degree, by reality,” says Kohane, who also sees patients in Boston Children’s Department of Critical Care Medicine. “You can achieve really big things by thinking really small.”

Click the image above to watch his whole talk.

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Breaking the allergic asthma cycle…by targeting nerve endings

asthma therapeuticsExisting asthma medications work by suppressing inflammatory signaling by immune cells or by dilating constricted airways. Over time, though, these drugs’ benefits can wane. New research supports a surprising new tactic for controlling asthma: targeting sensory nerve endings in the lungs with a selective drug.

Our lungs are known to contain specialized sensory neurons known as nociceptors that connect to the brainstem. Best known for causing the perception of pain, nocieptors also trigger the cough reflex in the lungs when they detect potential harms like dust particles, chemical irritants or allergens. Nociceptor nerve endings are known to be more plentiful and more readily activated in people with asthma. Now it’s also clear that they help drive allergic inflammation.

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