“Shapeshifter” that regulates blood clotting is visually captured for the first time

GIF of VWF, which regulates blood clotting, elongating and relaxing on loop
A single molecule of von Willebrand factor is visually captured, as it elongates and relaxes in response to blood flow conditions, for the very first time. Credit: Springer/Wong labs (Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School)

We are normally born with a highly sophisticated array of molecules that act as “sentries,” constantly scanning our bodies for injuries such as cuts and bruises. One such molecular sentry, known as von Willebrand factor (VWF), plays a critical role in our body’s ability to stop bleeding.

To prevent hemorrhage or life-threatening blood clots, VWF must strike a delicate balance between clotting too little or too much. Researchers have long suspected that the mechanical forces and shear stress of blood flow could be closely-related to VWF’s function.

“In some ways, like in the movie Star Wars, VWF may be considered a Jedi knight in our body that can use ‘the force’ to guard the bloodstream,” says Timothy Springer, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (HMS).

It has not been possible to witness exactly how VWF senses and harnesses these mechanical forces — until now.

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Making leaps and bounds in 10 years of genome-wide association studies

A Broad Institute cartoon explains what SNPs have to do with genome-wide association studies
A clip from a Broad Institute infographic explains what researchers look for during genome-wide association studies. Download full infographic here. Credit: Susanna Hamilton/Karen Zusi of the Broad Institute.

In 2007, when the first genome-wide association studies (GWAS) got underway, researchers began to realize just how poorly they had previously been able to predict which genes might be related to certain diseases.

“I think we were all surprised how bad our candidate gene lists were,” said Joel Hirschhorn, MD, PhD, in a recent podcast with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Hirschhorn, a pioneer in GWAS, now leads the international Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) Consortium, which has analyzed the genomes of hundreds of thousands of people over the last several years.

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“Omics” study takes a comprehensive look at premature birth

Seven layers of omics study
Seven layers of “omics” included in the PREM-MAP study

Every year, one in 10 new babies in the United States is born preterm, or before 37 weeks of gestation. With the last few weeks of pregnancy crucial to proper development of the lungs and brain, prematurely born infants can suffer lifelong problems.

Now scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have launched a comprehensive study to understand the reasons and risk factors for premature births. Earlier this year, Olaf Bodamer, MD, PhD was awarded a grant for this work from uBiome, a microbial genomics company.

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A metabolic treatment for pancreatic cancer?

nitrogen disposal is important to pancreatic cancer
Targeting an enzyme that helps dispose of excess nitrogen curbed malignant growth of pancreatic tumors in obese mice.

Pancreatic cancer has become the third leading cause of cancer mortality. Its incidence is rising in parallel with the rise in obesity, and it’s hard to treat: five-year survival still hovers at just 8 to 9 percent. A new study published online in Nature Communications finds early success with a completely new, metabolic approach: reducing tumors’ ability to get rid of excess nitrogen.

The researchers, led by Nada Kalaany, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Endocrinology and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, provide evidence that targeting the enzyme arginase 2 (ARG2) can curb pancreatic tumor growth, especially in people who are obese.

“We found that highly malignant pancreatic tumors are very dependent on the nitrogen metabolism pathway,” says Kalaany.

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Novel therapeutic cocktail could restore fine motor skills after spinal cord injury and stroke

CST axons sprout from intact to injured side
Therapeutic mixture induces sprouting of axons from healthy (L) into the injured (R) side of the spinal cord.

Neuron cells have long finger-like structures, called axons, that extend outward to conduct impulses and transmit information to other neurons and muscle fibers. After spinal cord injury or stroke, axons originating in the brain’s cortex and along the spinal cord become damaged, disrupting motor skills. Now, reported today in Neuron, a team of scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital has developed a method to promote axon regrowth after injury.

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Mitigating blood vessel damage from heart attack, stroke

Mouse hearts showing the impact of a therapeutic protein fusion on blood vessel health
Imaging of mouse hearts reveals widespread tissue damage (light-colored areas) after heart attack. At far right, however, mice that were treated with an engineered, optimized ApoM protein containing S1P have better tissue recovery than untreated mice (left) and mice that were given an inactive “dud” ApoM treatment (center). Credit: Hla lab/Boston Children’s Hospital

The average human has 60,000 miles of blood vessels coursing through their body. There are a number of mechanisms the body uses to keep that vast vascular network healthy, including a tiny fat molecule, a lipid called S1P, that plays a particularly important role.

S1P receptors dot the surface of the endothelium, a layer of cells that line the inside of all the body’s blood cells. Together, these so-called endothelial cells form a barrier between the body’s circulating blood and surrounding tissue. When S1P molecules activate their receptors, it suppresses endothelial inflammation and generally helps regulate cardiovascular health.

Now, researchers led by Timothy Hla, PhD, from the Boston Children’s Hospital Vascular Biology Program, report a novel therapeutic fusion that could trigger increased S1P receptor activity and recover blood vessel health following the onset of hypertension, atherosclerosis, stroke, heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases.

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If I knew then what I know now: The need for infrastructure to enable precision medicine

precision medicine - closing the infrastructure loop
For precision medicine to happen, we need to be able to close the loop when genetic discoveries are made.

Catherine Brownstein, MPH, PhD, is scientific director of The Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research at Boston Children’s Hospital. Kelsey Graber, MSc, is a research assistant in the Developmental Neuropsychiatry Program. Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, MD, is director of the Developmental Neuropsychiatry Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Research implicating rare genetic variants in medical and psychiatric diseases is quickly accumulating. This expanding knowledge should be taken into account when making treatment decisions for patients carrying these variants — as well as other family members — even when that knowledge comes after the patient is tested. But all too often, medical institutions are unable to go back and update the information given to families. We need a better infrastructure to enable precision medicine.

This problem recently surfaced in our psychiatry practice. It came to our attention because of a young boy with mild coordination delays and learning disabilities. At age 6, he started experiencing daily hallucinations such as voices telling him to kill his classmates.

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When asymptomatic viral infections turn deadly: Lessons from flies

Fruit flies

When Dr. Jonathan Kagan’s student came to him complaining of dying fruit flies, the two were unaware that their research was about to take an unexpected turn. Their goal in establishing Drosophila lines had been to study virus-host interactions. It was quickly subverted when the flies died on exposure to carbon dioxide, used when transferring flies between vials.

This was surprising on two fronts. First, carbon dioxide is routinely used to anesthetize the flies, with no ill effects. Second, the uninfected flies did not die. The virus used to infect the flies, called vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), normally does not cause symptoms, even with the virus making several thousand copies of itself.

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Using ultrasound to trigger on-demand, site-specific pain relief

Ultrasound being applied to agitate injected liposomes, which then release nerve blocking medication that stops pain at the site
Ultrasound triggers the release of local anesthetics from injectable liposomes. Credit: Mary O’Reilly

According to the CDC, 91 people die from opioid overdoses every day in the U.S. Here in Massachusetts, the state has an opioid-related death rate that is more than twice the national average.

“Opioid abuse is a growing problem in healthcare,” says Daniel Kohane, MD, PhD, a senior associate in critical care medicine at Boston Children’s and professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School.

Now, Kohane and other scientists who are developing triggerable drug delivery systems at Boston Children’s Hospital have found a new way to non-invasively relieve pain without opioids. Their novel system uses ultrasound to trigger the release of nerve-blocking agents — injected into specific sites of the body ahead of time — when and where pain relief is needed most. A paper describing the findings was published online today in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

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Nerve-growth agent could treat incontinence caused by spinal cord injury

Image of Rosalyn Adam, a urology researcher hoping to develop new treatments for incontinence, working in the laboratory
Rosalyn Adam is the director of urology research at Boston Children’s Hospital.

When the nerves between the brain and the spinal cord aren’t working properly, bladder control can suffer, resulting in a condition called neurogenic bladder. It’s a common complication of spinal cord injury; in fact, most people with spina bifida or spinal cord injury develop neurogenic bladders. Spontaneous activity of the smooth muscle in the wall of the bladder — called the detrusor muscle — commonly causes urine leakage and incontinence in people with neurogenic bladders.

“For children and adults, incontinence can be one of the most socially and psychologically detrimental complications of spinal cord injury,” says Rosalyn Adam, PhD, who is director of urology research at Boston Children’s Hospital. “The ultimate goal of our research is to return bladder control to the millions of Americans with neurogenic bladders.”

Now, Adam and a team of researchers think that they may have found a practical way to treat neurogenic detrusor overactivity by delivering medication directly into the bladder through self-catheterization, a practice that many people with neurogenic bladders already need to perform regularly.

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