Author: Kat J. McAlpine

How social media and a mumps outbreak teach us that vaccines build herd immunity

Mumps virus, pictured here, is usually preventable by vaccination.
The mumps virus, pictured here, has been spreading through Arkansas communities. Surprisingly, many affected people say they have received vaccinations to prevent it. Analyzing social media data helped a Boston Children’s Hospital team understand why so many people got sick.

Residents of Arkansas have been under siege by a viral threat that is typically preventable through vaccination. Since August 2016, more than 2,000 people have been stricken with mumps, an infection of the major salivary glands that causes uncomfortable facial swelling.

The disease is highly contagious but can usually be prevented by making sure that children (or adults) have had two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. But strangely, about 70 percent of people in Arkansas who got sick with mumps reported that they had received their two doses of the MMR vaccine.

So, members of the HealthMap lab, led by Chief Innovation Officer and director of the Computational Epidemiology Group at Boston Children’s Hospital, John Brownstein, PhD, asked, “Why did this outbreak take off?”

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Discovering a rare anemia in time to save an infant’s life

Illustration of the erythropoietin hormone. A newly-discovered genetic mutation, which switches one amino acid in EPO's structure, resulted in two cases of rare anemia.
An illustration showing the structure of a cell-signaling cytokine called erythropoietin (EPO). It has long been thought that when EPO binds with its receptor, EPOR, it functions like an on/off switch, triggering red blood cell production. New findings suggest that this process is more nuanced than previously thought; even slight variations to cytokines like EPO can cause disease.

While researching a rare blood disorder called Diamond-Blackfan anemia, scientists stumbled upon an even rarer anemia caused by a previously-unknown genetic mutation. During their investigation, the team of scientists — from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and Yale University — had the relatively unusual opportunity to develop an “on-the-fly” therapy.

As they analyzed the genes of one boy who had died from the newly-discovered blood disorder, the team’s findings allowed them to help save the life of his infant sister, who was also born with the same genetic mutation. The results were recently reported in Cell.

“We had a unique opportunity here to do research, and turn it back to a patient right away,” says Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, the paper’s co-corresponding author and a principal investigator at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to bring research full circle to impact a patient’s life.”

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Transfusing engineered red blood cells to protect against autoimmune disease

Red blood cells, pictured here, could be engineered to protect against autoimmune disease
Transfusions of engineered red blood cells could help prevent and/or treat autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune disease is usually treated using general immunosuppressants. But this non-targeted therapy leaves the body more susceptible to infection and other life-threatening diseases.

Now, scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research think they may have found a targeted way to protect the body from autoimmune disease. Their approach, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses transfusions of engineered red blood cells to re-train the immune system. Early experiments in mice have already shown that the approach can prevent — and even reverse — clinical signs of two autoimmune diseases: a multiple-sclerosis (MS)-like condition and Type 1 diabetes.

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Patients’ brain tissue unlocks the cellular hideout of Sturge-Weber’s gene mutation

A diagram of the skull and brain showing the leptomeninges, which is affected by Sturge-Weber syndrome
Sturge-Weber syndrome causes capillary malformations in the brain. They occur in the brain’s leptomeninges, which comprise the arachnoid mater and pia mater.

A person born with a port-wine birthmark on his or her face and eyelid(s) has an 8 to 15 percent chance of being diagnosed with Sturge-Weber syndrome. The rare disorder causes malformations in certain regions of the body’s capillaries (small blood vessels). Port-wine birthmarks appear on areas of the face affected by these capillary malformations.

Aside from the visible symptoms of Sturge-Weber, there are also some more subtle and worrisome ones. Sturge-Weber syndrome can be detected by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Such images can reveal a telltale series of malformed capillaries in regions of the brain. Brain capillary malformations can have potentially devastating neurological consequences, including epileptic seizures.

Frustratingly, since doctors first described Sturge-Weber syndrome over 100 years ago, the relationship between brain capillary malformations and seizures has remained somewhat unexplained. In 2013, a Johns Hopkins University team found a GNAQ R183Q gene mutation in about 90 percent of sampled Sturge-Weber patients. However, the mutation’s effect on particular cells and its relationship to seizures still remained unknown.

But recently, some new light has been shed on the mystery. At Boston Children’s Hospital, Sturge-Weber patients donated their brain tissue to research after it was removed during a drastic surgery to treat severe epilepsy. An analysis of their tissue, funded by Boston Children’s Translational Neuroscience Center (TNC), has revealed the cellular location of the Sturge-Weber mutation. The discovery brings new hope of finding ways to improve the lives of those with the disorder.

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Seeking a way to keep organs young

Images of mouse hearts with fibrosis
These mouse hearts show differing levels of fibrosis (blue) resulting from cardiac stress. New Boston Children’s Hospital research suggests certain therapies could prevent or reduce fibrosis, like we see in the center and right images.

The wear and tear of life takes a cumulative toll on our bodies. Our organs gradually stiffen through fibrosis, which is a process that deposits tough collagen in our body tissue. Fibrosis happens little by little, each time we experience illness or injury. Eventually, this causes our health to decline.

“As we age, we typically accumulate more fibrosis and our organs become dysfunctional,” says Denisa Wagner, PhD, the Edwin Cohn Professor of Pediatrics in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine and a member of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Ironically, fibrosis can stem from our own immune system’s attempt to defend us during injury, stress-related illness, environmental factors and even common infections.

But a Boston Children’s team of scientists thinks preventative therapies could be on the horizon. A study by Wagner and her team, published recently by the Journal of Experimental Medicine, pinpoints a gene responsible for fibrosis and identifies some possible therapeutic solutions.

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Soft robot could aid failing hearts by mimicking healthy cardiac muscle

heart-failure

Every year, about 2,100 people receive heart transplants in the U.S., while 5.7 million suffer from heart failure. Given the scarcity of available donor hearts, clinicians and biomedical engineers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University have spent several years developing a mechanical alternative.

Their proof of concept is reported today in Science Translational Medicine: a soft robotic sleeve that is fitted around the heart, where it twists and compresses the heart’s chambers just like healthy cardiac muscle would do.

Heart failure occurs when one or both of the heart’s ventricles can no longer collect or pump blood effectively. Ventricular assist devices (VADs) are already used to sustain end-stage heart failure patients awaiting transplant, replacing the work of the ventricles through tubes that take blood out of the heart, send it through pumps or rotors and power it back into a patient’s bloodstream. But while VADs extend lives, they can cause complications.

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Biological ‘programmers’ crack new code in stem cells

Stem cell colony Wyss Institute James Collins George Daley complexity
Researchers discovered many small nuances in pluripotency states of stem cells by subjecting the cells to various perturbations and then analyzing each individual cell to observe all the different reactions to developmental cues within a stem cell colony. (Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

Stem cells offer great potential in biomedical engineering because they’re pluripotent—meaning they can multiply indefinitely and develop into any of the hundreds of different kinds of cells and tissues in the body. But in trying to tap these cells’ creative potential, it has so far been hard to pinpoint the precise biological mechanisms and genetic makeups that dictate how stem cells diverge on the path to development.

Part of the challenge, according to James Collins, PhD, a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, is that not all stem cells are created the same. “Stem cell colonies contain much variability between individual cells. This has been considered somewhat problematic for developing predictive approaches in stem cell engineering,” he says.

But now, Collins and Boston Children’s Hospital’s George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, have used a new, very sensitive single-cell genetic profiling method to reveal how the variability in pluripotent stem cells runs way deeper than we thought.

While at first glimmer, it could appear this would make predictive stem cell engineering more difficult, it might actually present an opportunity to exert even more programmable control over stem cell differentiation and development than was originally envisioned. “What was previously considered problematic variability could actually be beneficial to our ability to precisely control stem cells,” says Collins.

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