Author: Kat J. McAlpine

Food for thought: How your microbiome celebrates Thanksgiving

Image of microbiome superimposed over a Thanksgiving turkeySeth Rakoff-Nahoum, MD, PhD, a Boston Children’s Hospital physician-scientist who does infectious disease research and is taking an evolutionary approach to understanding the human microbiome and its effect on health, offers us some insight into what’s happening to the bugs in our gut as a result of the Thanksgiving meal. 

Q: Does the traditional American Thanksgiving meal affect the human microbiome?

A: Anything you put in your body has the potential to affect your microbiome, and Thanksgiving dinner is no different.

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A “half-hearted” solution to one-sided heart failure

Illustration showing how the system supports a failing right ventricle
Illustration showing sectional view of a heart with the soft robotic system helping to draw blood into (left) and pump blood out (right) of the heart’s right ventricle.

Soft robotic actuators, which are pneumatic artificial muscles designed and programmed to perform lifelike motions, have recently emerged as an attractive alternative to more rigid components that have conventionally been used in biomedical devices. In fact, earlier this year, a Boston Children’s Hospital team revealed a proof-of-concept soft robotic sleeve that could support the function of a failing heart.

Despite this promising innovation, the team recognized that many pediatric heart patients have more one-sided congenital heart conditions. These patients are not experiencing failure of the entire heart — instead, congenital conditions have caused disease in either the heart’s right or left ventricle, but not both.

Read our Vector story on the soft robotic heart sleeve that mimics cardiac muscles.

“We set out to develop new technology that would help one diseased ventricle, when the patient is in isolated left or right heart failure, pull blood into the chamber and then effectively pump it into the circulatory system,” says Nikolay Vasilyev, MD, a researcher in cardiac surgery at Boston Children’s.

Now, Vasilyev and his collaborators — researchers from Boston Children’s, the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University — have revealed their soft robotic solution. They describe their system in a paper published online in Science Robotics today.

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Cellphone data reveals Hurricane Maria’s impact on travel in Puerto Rico

Residents evacuate Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria made landfall
A U.S. Naval Aircrewman leads residents of Puerto Rico to a helicopter for evacuation following the landfall of Hurricane Maria. Photo credit: Sean Galbreath/Wiki Commons

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, the infrastructural damage remains evident — today, FEMA estimates that only 41 percent of the island has had power restored. But the impact on human behavior is just beginning to be understood.

Research collaborators from the Boston Children’s Hospital Computational Epidemiology Group, MIT Media Lab and Google, Inc., have shed light on the particulars of when people chose to move out of the hurricane’s path and how much travel has been hindered since destructive winds and flooding knocked Puerto Rico off the grid.

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Microbial murder mystery solved

Bacteria, pictured in Petri dish culture here, can become resistant to antibiotics - but not killer cells. Why? New research from Boston Children's Hospital helps solve this microbial murder mystery.Immune cells called “killer cells” target bacteria invading the body’s cells, but how do they do this so effectively? Bacteria can quickly evolve resistance against antibiotics, yet it seems they have not so readily been able to evade killer cells. This has caused researchers to become interested in finding out the exact mechanism that killer cells use to destroy bacterial invaders.

Although one way that killer cells can trigger bacterial death is by inflicting oxidative damage, it has not yet been at all understood how killer cells destroy bacteria in environments without oxygen.

Now, for the first time, researchers have caught killer cells red-handed in the act of microbial murder

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A “CRISPR” view of Sturge-Weber syndrome is coming into focus

Colorized laboratory image showing tissue model containing the Sturge-Weber syndrome genetic mutation
Living blood vessels inside a microfluidic chip containing the genetic mutation (green) responsible for Sturge-Weber syndrome (Credit: Bischoff lab)

Three-dimensional modeling and CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology are giving scientists a new view into Sturge-Weber syndrome, a rare congenital disorder that causes small blood vessels, called capillaries, to be malformed. These capillary malformations can cause port wine birthmarks on the face and neck, and in some cases, abnormal vasculature in the brain that can spark seizures.

Last year, a Boston Children’s Hospital research team — led by Joyce Bischoff, PhD, of the Vascular Biology Programdiscovered that the genetic mutation responsible for Sturge-Weber syndrome dwells in endothelial cells lining the affected capillaries in the brain. The team had previously found the same mutation present in the endothelial cells of skin capillaries of patients’ port wine birthmarks.

Together, their studies suggest that mutated endothelial cells could be causing surrounding cells to behave abnormally.

To explore this emerging hypothesis, Bischoff’s team is seeking lifelike ways of mimicking these hallmark capillary malformations in the laboratory.

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Why do some people with cystic fibrosis live much longer than others?

Lung tissue, which can be compromised by the genetic disorder known as cystic fibrosis, is seen under microscopic view.
Lung tissue under microscope.

The answer may be hidden in their genes.

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disorder caused by genetic mutations that disrupt the normal movement of chloride in and out of cells. Among other health problems, cystic fibrosis compromises the lungs’ ability to fight infection and breathe efficiently, making it the most lethal genetic disease in the Caucasian population. Patients have an average lifespan of just 30 to 40 years.

Despite this narrow average lifespan, there is a big range in how severely cystic fibrosis (CF) affects the lungs and other organs depending on an individual’s specific genetic variation, and even in how long patients sharing the same, most common genetic mutation are able to survive with CF.

This led researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital to wonder if other genetic mutations could be protective against CF’s effects. Recent findings published in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology suggest that may be the case.

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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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