Author: Kat J. McAlpine

A new inlet to treating neurological disease

Image of brains showing red tracer dye, indicating passage of molecules through the blood-brain barrier
These brain images tell a story about the blood-brain barrier: At left, the brain before injection of red tracer dye. At center, an injection of tracer dye shows only a small amount of molecules can infiltrate the blood brain barrier. At right, a new approach for crossing the blood-brain barrier increases the tracer’s penetration into brain tissue.

The blood-brain barrier was designed by nature to protect the brain and central nervous system (CNS) from toxins and other would-be invaders in the body’s circulating blood. Made up of tightly-packed cells, the barrier allows nutrients to pass into the CNS and waste products from the brain to be flushed out, while blocking entry of harmful substances.

A dysfunctional blood-brain barrier can contribute to CNS diseases including Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis (MS). But, ironically, the same blood-brain barrier can keep out drugs intended to treat CNS disease. Scientists have long been seeking ways to overcome this obstacle.

Now, Timothy Hla, PhD, and members of his laboratory in the Boston Children’s Hospital Vascular Biology Program have found a way to selectively control openings in the blood brain barrier to allow passage of small drug molecules.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

A surprising new link between inflammation and mental illness — and a potential drug to protect the brain

A synapse being attacked by microglia, which causes neuropsychiatric symptoms in lupus
In the brain, a synapse (red – see diagonal “spine” across center of photo) is seen being wrapped around and attacked by immune cells called microglia (green), leading to synapse loss. Credit: Carroll lab / Boston Children’s Hospital

Up to 75 percent of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus — an incurable autoimmune disease commonly known as “lupus” —  experience neuropsychiatric symptoms.  But so far, our understanding of the mechanisms underlying lupus’ effects on the brain has remained murky.

“In general, lupus patients commonly have a broad range of neuropsychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, headaches, seizures, even psychosis,” says Allison Bialas, PhD, a research fellow working in the lab of Michael Carroll, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital. “But their cause has not been clear — for a long time it wasn’t even appreciated that these were symptoms of the disease.”

Collectively, lupus’ neuropsychatric symptoms are known as central nervous system (CNS) lupus. Their cause has been unclear until now.

Perhaps, Bialas thought, changes in the immune systems of lupus patients were directly causing these symptoms from a pathological standpoint. Working with Carroll and other members of his lab, Bialas started out with a simple question, and soon, made a surprising finding – one that points to a potential new drug for protecting the brain from the neuropsychiatric effects of lupus and other diseases. The team has published its findings in Nature.

Read Full Story | 1 Comment | Leave a Comment

Flipping the switch on tumor growth

Pictures of angiogenic tumor cells
Time-lapse imaging can reveal tell-tale changes in cellular behaviors associated with tumor growth.

Without a blood supply, a tumor can remain dormant and harmless. But new blood vessel growth from an existing vessel, a process called angiogenesis, is a hallmark of both benign and malignant tumors. During angiogenesis, blood vessels invade tumors and activate them, fueling their growth.

Now, Marsha A. Moses, PhD, who directs the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and members of her laboratory have revealed that a specialized imaging system can detect changes in cell behaviors. These changes predict when tumors are leaving a state of dormancy and becoming more likely to grow.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Rare disease therapies: Three strategies to bridge the gap between research and industry

Rare disease research: DNA helix pictured here
Genetic mutations underpin many rare diseases.

Right now, there are about 7,000 rare diseases affecting 10 percent of Americans. Only five percent of these diseases have any FDA-approved treatment options.

Panelists:
David Williams, MD: President, Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center; Senior VP, Chief Scientific Officer and Chief of Hematology/Oncology, Boston Children’s
Wayne Lencer, MD: Chief of Gastroenterology, Hematology and Nutrition, Boston Children’s
Phil Reilly, MD, JD: Venture Partner at Third Rock Ventures
Alvin Shih, MD, MBA: Chief Executive Officer at Enzyvant

Even at a place like Boston Children’s Hospital, where doctors regularly see children with rare diseases from all over the world, there are big challenges when it comes to drug discovery and treatment.

“Roughly 70 percent of drugs to treat children are used off-label,” says David Williams, Boston Children’s chief scientific officer. “That’s because these drugs were initially developed for adults and have not been tested formally in children.”

In order to cure rare diseases in children and adults, scientists must bridge the gap between research and industry. On May 25, Boston Children’s Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO) and MassBio held a candid panel discussion about what it will take to advance the development of rare disease therapies. Here are three of the biggest takeaways

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Precision drug delivery systems could ‘trigger’ an age of nanomedicine

Nanoscale drug delivery systems could target and destroy diseases in our body with increased precision and reduced side effects.

What if we could deliver biocompatible nanoparticles into the body and then activate them to release drugs exactly where they are needed, without causing side effects elsewhere?

Scientists like Daniel Kohane, MD, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital, are developing nanoscale drug delivery systems to do just that, using a variety of materials and triggers that are sensitive to a range of specific stimuli.

“Triggerable drug delivery systems could improve the treatment of many diseases by reducing side effects and increasing the effectiveness of therapeutics,” says Kohane, who directs the Laboratory for Biomaterials and Drug Delivery at Boston Children’s. He is the senior author on a recent article about the topic in Nature Reviews Materials.

One potential use of nanoscale drug delivery systems is of special interest to Kohane and his lab members

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Predicting influenza outbreaks faster with a digitally-empowered wearable device

Influenza viruses. Outbreaks can be predicted using digital health tools like Thermia.The Thermia online health educational tool, developed at Boston Children’s Hospital, has enabled one-month-faster prediction of seasonal influenza outbreaks in China, via its digital integration with a commercially-available wearable thermometer. The findings appear in a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

 “The fact that we were able to predict influenza outbreaks faster than China’s national surveillance programs really shows the capacity for everyday, wearable digital health devices to track the spread of disease at the population level,” says the study’s lead author Yulin Hswen, who is a research fellow in Boston Children’s Computational Epidemiology Group and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

China has 620 million mobile internet users who can theoretically access the standalone Thermia application from any computer, smartphone or even the Amazon Alexa assistant.

Although the Boston Children’s team has previously demonstrated that social media can be used to track disease, this is the first time they’ve shown that outbreaks can be predicted through an integrated wearable device and online tool.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

One family, one researcher: How Mikey’s journey is fueling an attack on DIPG

Picture of Mikey on 11th birthday, shortly after his DIPG diagnosis
Mikey and his family at his 11th birthday party, just one week after he was diagnosed with DIPG, a devastating tumor in his brain stem. Since Mikey’s passing in 2008, his family has been committed to supporting DIPG research.

“It’s a brutal disease; there’s just no other way to describe DIPG,” says Steve Czech. “And what’s crazy is that there aren’t many treatment options because it’s such a rare, orphan disease.”

Czech’s son, Mikey, was diagnosed with a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) on Jan. 6, 2008. It was Mikey’s 11th birthday. The fast growing and difficult-to-treat brainstem tumors are diagnosed in approximately 300 children in the U.S. each year.

Sadly, the virtually incurable disease comes with a poor prognosis for most children. The location of DIPG tumors in the brainstem — which controls many of the body’s involuntary functions, such as breathing — has posed a huge challenge to successful treatment thus far.

“Typically, they give kids about nine months,” says Czech. “Our lives changed forever the day that Mikey was diagnosed.”

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

GALLERY: Forecasting the future of pediatric hematology/oncology

Title image for pediatric hematology/oncology predictionsRecently, the annual ASPHO (American Society for Pediatric Hematology/Oncology) meeting brought together more than 1,100 pediatric hematologists and oncologists, including a team from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancers and Blood Disorders Center. Some of the delegates from Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s included:

Based on their discussions with their peers, these are their key takeaways from the meeting:

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Naturally-occurring molecule in tree leaves could treat anemia, other iron disorders

Hinoki cypress

“Without iron, life itself wouldn’t be feasible,” says Barry Paw, MD, PhD. “Iron transport is very important because of the role it plays in oxygen transport in blood, in key metabolic processes and in DNA replication.”

Although iron is crucial to many aspects of health, it needs the help of the body’s iron-transporting proteins. Which is why new findings reported in Science could impact a whole slew of iron disorders, ranging from iron-deficiency anemia to iron-overload liver disease. The team has discovered that a small molecule found naturally in Japanese cypress tree leaves, hinokitiol, can transport iron to overcome iron disorders in animals.

The multi-institutional research team is from the University of Illinois, Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Northeastern University. Paw, co-senior author on the new paper and a physician at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s, and members of his lab demonstrated that hinokitiol can successfully reverse iron deficiency and iron overload in zebrafish disease models.

“Amazingly, we observed in zebrafish that hinokitiol can bind and transport iron inside or out of cell membranes to where it is needed most,” says Paw.

This gives hinokitiol big therapeutic potential.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Fast brain waves: A better biomarker for epilepsy

EEG and MEG detection of HFOs, fast brain waves associated with epilepsy
Localization of fast brain waves, called HFOs, with scalp EEG (left) and MEG (right). HFOs present a new biomarker for areas of the brain responsible for epileptic seizures.

In the U.S., about one in 100 people have some form of epilepsy. A third of those people have seizures that cannot be controlled with drugs, eventually requiring surgery to remove the area of their brain tissue that is triggering seizure activity.

“If you can identify and surgically remove the entire epileptogenic zone, you will have a patient who is seizure-free,” says Christos Papadelis, PhD, who leads the Boston Children’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory in the Division of Newborn Medicine and is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Even experts in this field were skeptical for years about the non-invasive detection of HFOs. But now, thanks to our study and other researchers’ work, these people are changing their minds. At present, however, these surgeries are not always successful. Current diagnostics lack the ability to determine precisely which parts of an individual’s brain are inducing his or her seizures, called the epileptogenic zone. In addition, robust biomarkers for the epileptogenic zone have been poorly established.

But now, a team at Boston Children’s Hospital is doing research to improve pre-surgical pinpointing of the brain’s epileptogenic zone. They are using a newly-established biomarker for epilepsy — fast brain waves called high-frequency oscillations (HFOs) — that can be detected non-invasively using scalp electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG).

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment