Author: Kat J. McAlpine

Organs-on-chips reveal breathing’s critical role in lung cancer development

Image of lung cancer cells grown alongside human lung small airway cells inside an organ-on-a-chip
Inside view of a lung cancer chip: Lung adenocarcinoma cells are grown as a tumor cell colony (blue) next to normal human lung small airway cells (purple). Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

One of the biggest challenges facing cancer researchers — and lots of other medical researchers, in fact — is that experimental models cannot perfectly replicate human diseases in the laboratory.

That’s why human Organs-on-Chips, small devices that mimic human organ environments in an affordable and lifelike manner, have quickly been taken up into use by scientists in academic and industry labs and are being tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Now, the chips have helped discover an important link between breathing mechanics and lung cancer behavior.

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MATCHing precision medicine to all kids with cancer

Image of human neuroblastoma tumor cells. A new nationwide clinical trial called pediatric MATCH will utilize genomic sequencing to match children with individualized, targeted drugs matched to their tumor profile.
Human neuroblastoma cells.

A multi-center clinical trial is now offering nationwide genetic profiling services to pediatric and young adult cancer patients across the U.S. The goal is to identify gene mutations that can be individually matched with targeted drugs.

“This is the first-ever nationwide precision medicine clinical trial for pediatric cancer,” says pediatric oncologist Katherine Janeway, MD, clinical director of the solid tumor center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

Sponsored by the National Institute of Cancer (NCI) and the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), the so-called NCI-COG Pediatric MATCH trial will screen patients’ tumors for more than 160 gene mutations related to cancer. Nearly 1,000 patients are expected to participate in the trial and it is estimated that 10 percent of those patients will be matched with a targeted therapy.

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Meeting an unmet need: A surgical implant that grows with a child

Depiction of a growth-accommodating implant expanding in sync with a child's growing heart.
Artist’s rendering showing how a braided, tubular implant could grow in sync with a child’s heart valve. Credit: Randal McKenzie

Medical implants can save lives by correcting structural defects in the heart and other organs. But until now, the use of medical implants in children has been complicated by the fact that fixed-size implants cannot expand in tune with a child’s natural growth.

To address this unmet surgical need, a team of researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed a growth-accommodating implant designed for use in a cardiac surgical procedure called a valve annuloplasty, which repairs leaking mitral and tricuspid valves in the heart. The innovation was reported today in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

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Gene therapy halts progression of cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy in clinical trial

David Williams, MD, the principal investigator of the clinical trial, discusses gene therapy and its impact on children with adrenoleukodystrophy

Adrenoleukodystrophy — depicted in the 1992 movie “Lorenzo’s Oil” — is a genetic disease that most severely affects boys. Caused by a defective gene on the X chromosome, it triggers a build-up of fatty acids that damage the protective myelin sheaths of the brain’s neurons, leading to cognitive and motor impairment. The most devastating form of the disease is cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy (CALD), marked by loss of myelin and brain inflammation. Without treatment, CALD ultimately leads to a vegetative state, typically claiming boys’ lives within 10 years of diagnosis.

But now, a breakthrough treatment is offering hope to families affected by adrenoleukodystrophy. A gene therapy treatment effectively stabilized CALD’s progression in 88 percent of patients, according to clinical trial results reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study was led by researchers from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and Massachusetts General Hospital.

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More than half of type 2 diabetes patients may not take their medication as prescribed

Image of medications: A new study found that many people with diabetes are not taking their medication as prescribedNew research reveals why treatment might appear to fail to control glucose levels in many people with Type 2 diabetes: not taking their medication as prescribed.

“When patients have poor glycemic control, their physicians may assume that there was a medication failure when they were, in fact, not filling their prescriptions,” says Ken Mandl, MD, MPH, of Boston Children’s Hospital, the senior author of a new report in Diabetes Care.

The study raises the question of whether the same might be true for patients with other conditions.

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To monitor health, simply trip the ‘nanoswitches’

WATCH: DNA nanoswitches change shape in the presence of biomarkers. The shape change is revealed in a process called gel electrophoresis. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“Nanoswitches” — engineered, shape-changing strands of DNA — could shake up the way we monitor our health, according to new research. Faster, easier, cheaper and more sensitive tests based on these tools — used in the lab or at point of care — could indicate the presence of disease, infection and even genetic variabilities as subtle as a single-gene mutation.

“One critical application in both basic research and clinical practice is the detection of biomarkers in our bodies, which convey vital information about our current health,” says lead researcher Wesley Wong, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine (PCMM). “However, current methods tend to be either cheap and easy or highly sensitive, but generally not both.”

That’s why Wong and his team have adapted their DNA nanoswitch technology — previously demonstrated to aid drug discovery and the measure of biochemical interactions — into a new platform that they call the nanoswitch-linked immunosorbent assay (NLISA) for fast, sensitive and specific protein detection. It’s described this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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“Vampires” may have been real people with this blood disorder

Mural of Vlad the Impaler, who was accused of being a vampire. Perhaps, instead, he suffered from a blood disorder called porphyria.Porphyrias, a group of eight known blood disorders, affect the body’s molecular machinery for making heme, which is a component of the oxygen-transporting protein, hemoglobin. When heme binds with iron, it gives blood its hallmark red color.

The different genetic variations that affect heme production give rise to different clinical presentations of porphyria — including one form that may be responsible for vampire folklore.

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Landmark moment for science as the FDA approves a gene therapy for the first time

Leukemia blast cells, which could now be destroyed using a first-of-its-kind, FDA-approved gene therapy called CAR-T cell therapy
Leukemia blast cells.

Today, the Food and Drug Administration approved a gene therapy known as CAR T-cell therapy that genetically modifies a patient’s own cells to help them combat pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer. It is the first gene therapy to be approved by the FDA.

“This represents the progression of the field of gene therapy, which has been developing over the last 30 years,” says gene therapy pioneer David A. Williams, MD, who is chief scientific officer of Boston Children’s Hospital and president of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “It’s a realization of what we envisioned to be molecular medicine when this research started. The vision — that we could alter cells in a way to cure disease — is now coming true.”

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An FDA-approved drug could prevent valve damage after heart attack

Losartan is shown to prevent thickening of the mitral valve after heart attack, in comparison with an untreated heart
An untreated mitral valve (left) shows much more thickening and fibrosis after heart attack than a mitral valve treated with losartan (right).

On average, one in four people who have a heart attack sustain long-lasting damage to the mitral valve, which has the important job of making sure blood pumps through the heart’s ventricles in the right direction. If the valve is damaged, the heart’s pumping efficiency is reduced and blood can flow backward, which can lead to heart failure and death.

Now, a team of collaborators from Boston Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital has shown, for the first time, that it’s possible to treat and even prevent mitral valve damage after heart attack with an FDA-approved, anti-hypertension drug called losartan. Their findings are published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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Finding what fuels the “runaway train” of autoimmune diseases

Competing B cells, pictured here, produce autoantibodies that contribute to autoimmune disease
Natural selection on a small scale: Immune cells called B cells battle each other to produce the best antibody. Here, green represents the B cells that are producing the “winning” antibody, which stamp out competing B cells (other colors). Credit: Carroll lab

A newly-unveiled discovery, four years in the making, could change the way we look at autoimmune diseases and our understanding of how and why immune cells begin to attack different tissues in the body.

“Once your body’s tolerance for its own tissues is lost, the chain reaction is like a runaway train,” says Michael Carroll, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (HMS). “The immune response against your own body’s proteins, or antigens, looks exactly like it’s responding to a foreign pathogen.”

A team led by Carroll has spent years investigating mouse models of lupus to better understand the ins and outs of autoimmune diseases. Its latest findings, published in Cell, reveal that rogue B cells — immune cells that produce antibodies and program the immune system to attack certain antigens — can trigger an “override” that launches the body into an autoimmune attack. Adding insult to injury, B cells’ immune targeting instructions can rapidly expand to order an attack on additional tissue types within the body.

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