Author: Amanda Stavis

Small samples, big data: A systems-biology look at a newborn’s first week of life

newborn biology, through tiny blood samples
(PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK)

The first week of a baby’s life is a time of rapid biological change. The newborn must adapt to living outside the womb, suddenly exposed to new bacteria and viruses. Yet scientists know surprisingly little about these early changes.

Reporting in today’s Nature Communications, an international research team provides the most detailed accounting to date of the molecular changes that occur during a newborn’s first seven days. The team pioneered a technique to extract volumes of data from a tiny amount of newborn blood — including what genes are turned on, what proteins the body is making and what metabolites are changing.

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Using mitochondrial DNA to trace cells’ family trees

tracing cell family relationships with mitochondrial DNA
(IMAGE: ADOBE STOCK)

Second in a two-part series on mitochondria. See part 1.

Recent advances in single-cell genomics have made it possible to study individual cells and learn how they develop into specialized cells. However, we have only limited information on cells’ origins and how they’re related to the other cells around them.

Meanwhile, efforts to understand more about how cells differentiate and divide have looked at whole cell categories at a time, offering little knowledge of individual cells.

“It’s like looking at the statistics for a college — you can determine what the average student is like, but you have no idea what any one individual student is doing,” says Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, a hematologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Learning about cellular relationships is critical — it can help us understand how many stem cells give rise to any tissue in our body, what cell types cancers emerge from, or how some cells can be dysfunctional in particular diseases.”

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Light-activated nanoparticles could avoid painful eye injections for ‘wet’ macular degeneration

Could intravitreal injections become a thing of the past?
(PHOTO: ZKALILA1998 / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

There are two standard treatments for “wet” age-related macular degeneration (AMD), in which abnormal, leaky blood vessels in the back of the eye lead to fluid buildup and vision loss. The first, injection of medication directly into the eye, can be painful and can cause inflammation, infection and detachment of the retina. The second, ablation therapy, uses lasers to destroy the leaky blood vessels. It, too, is unpleasant to undergo, and the lasers can also destroy surrounding healthy tissue, causing further vision loss.

In today’s Nature Communications, the lab of Daniel Kohane, MD, PhD, provides proof-of-concept of a more tolerable alternative: tiny, drug-carrying nanoparticles that can be injected intravenously, but deliver medication only to the eye.

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Natural killer cells: A new angle on neuropathic pain

natural killer cells, peripheral nerve damage and neuropathic pain
Like an immune cleanup crew, natural killer cells (green) infiltrate a damaged axon. (IMAGE: ALEXANDER DAVIES / SEOUL NATIONAL UNIVERSITY AND UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD)

Scientists have known since the 1800s what happens to a totally crushed peripheral nerve in animals: the damaged axons are broken down in a process called Wallerian degeneration, allowing healthy ones to regrow. But humans rarely suffer complete axonal damage. Instead, axons tend to be partially damaged, causing neuropathic pain — a difficult-to-treat, chronic pain associated with nerve trauma, chemotherapy and diabetes.

The lab of Michael Costigan, PhD, in Boston Children’s Hospital’s F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center is studying how the body’s immune system breaks down these damaged nerves. Their latest research, published today in Cell, may change our understanding of neuropathic pain and how to treat it.

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Drug repurposing and DNA mining: The hunt for new endometriosis treatments

endometriosis researchers Michael Rogers and Danielle Peterse
Michael Rogers and Daniëlle Peterse (PHOTO: MICHAEL GODERRE/BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

Endometriosis is a common gynecological condition that may affect more than 1 in 10 reproductive-age women. Yet, there’s very little research into the disease and limited options for treatment. A team in the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital is trying to change that.

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