Author: Kat J. McAlpine

Forecasting the convergence of artificial intelligence and precision medicine

Image of artificial DNA, which in combination with other artificial intelligence could contribute to an artificial model of the immune system
Will an artificial model of the immune system be the key to discovering new, precision vaccines?

This is part I of a two-part blog series recapping the 2018 BIO International Convention.

At the 2018 BIO International Convention last week, it was clear what’s provoking scientific minds in industry and academia — or at least those of the Guinness-world-record-making 16,000 people in attendance. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and their implications for tailor-made medicine bubbled up across all BIO’s educational tracks and a majority of discussions about the future state of biotechnology. Panelists from Boston Children’s Hospital also contributed their insights to what’s brewing at the intersection of these burgeoning fields.

Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, former chair of Boston Children’s Computational Health and Informatics Program, spoke on a panel about how large-scale patient data — if properly harnessed and analyzed for health and disease trends — is a virtual goldmine for precision medicine insights. Patterns gleaned from population health data or electronic health records, for example, could help identify which subgroups of patients who might respond better to specific therapies.

According to Kohane, who is currently the Marion J. Nelson Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (HMS), we will soon be leveraging artificial intelligence to go through patient records and determine exactly what doctors were thinking when they saw patients.

“We’ve seen again and again that data abstraction by artificial intelligence is better than abstraction by human analysts when performed at the scale of millions of clinical notes across thousands of patients,” said Kohane.

And based on what we heard at BIO, artificial intelligence will revolutionize more than patient data mining. It will also transform the way we design precision therapeutics — and even vaccines — from the ground up.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Solving the DIPG puzzle a single cell at a time

Image depicting the cellular makeup of DIPG/DMG tumors vs normal brain tissue development
Scientists have discovered that DIPG/DMG tumors are made up of H3K27M-mutated cell populations that contain many cells stuck in a stem-cell-like state, fueling tumor growth. Cells that can differentiate despite the H3K27M mutation could hold the key to unlocking a new therapy for DIPG/DMG.

For more than 15 years, pediatric neuro-oncologist Mariella Filbin, MD, PhD, has been on a scientific crusade to understand DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma). She hopes to one day be able to cure a disease that has historically been thought of as an incurable type of childhood brain cancer.

“While I was in medical school, I met a young girl who was diagnosed with DIPG,” Filbin recalls. “When I heard that there was no treatment available, I couldn’t believe that was the case. It really made a huge impression on me and since then, I’ve dedicated all my research to fighting DIPG.”

Her mission brought her to Boston Children’s Hospital for her medical residency program and later, to do postdoctoral research at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Now, she’s starting her own research laboratory focused on DIPG — which has also been called diffuse midline glioma (DMG) in recent years — and continuing to treat children with brain tumors at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s pediatric brain tumor treatment center. She’s also a scientist affiliated with the Broad Institute Cancer Program.

This year, Filbin has made new impact in the field by leveraging the newest single-cell genetic sequencing technologies to analyze exactly how DIPG develops in the first place. Her latest research, published in Science, entailed profiling more than 3,300 individual brain cells from biopsies of six different patients.

Using what’s known as a single-cell RNA sequencing approach to interrogate the makeup of DIPG/DMG tumors, Filbin was able to identify a particularly problematic type of brain cell that acts forever young, constantly dividing over and over again in a manner similar to stem cells.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Scientists find link between increases in local temperature and antibiotic resistance

Image representing the rise of antibiotic resistance
Illustration by Fawn Gracey

Over-prescribing has long been thought to increase antibiotic resistance in bacteria. But could much bigger environmental pressures be at play?

While studying the role of climate on the distribution of antibiotic resistance across the geography of the U.S., a multidisciplinary team of epidemiologists from Boston Children’s Hospital found that higher local temperatures and population densities correlate with higher antibiotic resistance in common bacterial strains. Their findings were published today in Nature Climate Change.

“The effects of climate are increasingly being recognized in a variety of infectious diseases, but so far as we know this is the first time it has been implicated in the distribution of antibiotic resistance over geographies,” says the study’s lead author, Derek MacFadden, MD, an infectious disease specialist and research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital. “We also found a signal that the associations between antibiotic resistance and temperature could be increasing over time.”

During their study, the team assembled a large database of U.S. antibiotic resistance in E. coli, K. pneumoniae and S. aureus, pulling from hospital, laboratory and disease surveillance data documented between 2013 and 2015. Altogether, their database comprised more than 1.6 million bacterial specimens from 602 unique records across 223 facilities and 41 states.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Trial shows chemotherapy is helping kids live with pulmonary vein stenosis

Magnification of pulmonary vein tissue showing signs of pulmonary vein stenosis (plump abnormal cells stained dark magenta).
Magnification of pulmonary vein tissue showing signs of pulmonary vein stenosis (plump abnormal cells stained dark magenta). Credit: Boston Children’s Hospital Department of Pathology

Pulmonary vein stenosis (PVS) is a rare disease in which abnormal cells build up inside the veins responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the heart. It restricts blood flow through these vessels, eventually sealing them off entirely if left untreated. Typically affecting young children, the most severe form of PVS progresses very quickly and can cause death within a matter of months after diagnosis.

Until recently, treatment options have been limited to keeping the pulmonary veins open through catheterization or surgery. Yet this approach only removes the cells but does nothing to prevent their regrowth. Now, a clinical trial shows that adding chemotherapy to a treatment regimen including catheterization and surgery can deter abnormal cellular growth and finally give children with PVS a chance to grow up.

Results of the trial, run by the Boston Children’s Hospital Pulmonary Vein Stenosis Program, were recently published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

“Through this approach, we’ve created the first-ever population of survivors who are living with severe PVS,” says Christina Ireland, RN, MS, FNP, who has managed enrolling patients in the trial and treating new patients since the trial ended. “We’ve changed this disease from an acute killer to a chronic, manageable condition.”

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Viral discussion: Epidemics experts sound off on the future of infection control

Image of flu virus, which experts think will eventually lead to future epidemics
Is the next flu pandemic around the corner?

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped below 40 years old. Today, public health and medical professionals need to be actively preparing for the next great pandemic, according to leaders of the Massachusetts Medical Society, The New England Journal of Medicine and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who delivered the keynote address at a Boston-based meeting on April 27 called Epidemics Going Viral: Innovation vs. Nature. Here’s recap of what we heard from various panelists.

The five key drivers of epidemics are population growth/urbanization, travel, animals, environmental/climate changes and conflicts/natural disasters, according to Harvey Fineberg, MD, PhD, President of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and former president of the Institute of Medicine. When it comes to predicting and preventing the next epidemic, Fineberg believes that data from a social media platform like Twitter isn’t going to help identify the next big outbreak.

But John Brownstein, PhD, an epidemiologist and Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, disagreed with that idea.

“I believe it’s possible for Twitter to find the next microbe,” Brownstein said. “This information comes in real time and at global scale.” Attendees who were live tweeting with the hashtag #epidemicsgoviral were quick to highlight this difference of opinion.

Uber flu shot, “a cool millennial thing to do”

Anne Schuchat, MD, deputy director of the Centers of Disease Control, busted the myth that non-vaccination rates are rising. She explained that media stories about anti-vaccination supporters can make it seem as though vaccination rates are falling when they actually aren’t.

“Less than one percent of kids aren’t vaccinated in the U.S.,” Schuchat said.

But some vaccinations, like the annual flu shot, still have big gaps to close. Brownstein described how a partnership with Uber — dispatching flu vaccines and nurses to people’s homes — was able to influence people to get their first-ever flu shot.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

A bold strategy to enhance CAR T-cell therapies, capable of targeting DIPG and other tough-to-treat cancers

CAR T-cell therapy uses a patient's own genetically modified T cells to attack cancer, as pictured here, where T cells surround a cancer cell.
T cells surround a cancer cell. Credit: National Institutes of Health

A Boston-based team of researchers, made up of scientists and pediatric oncologists, believe a better CAR T-cell therapy is on the horizon.

They say it could treat a range of cancers — including the notorious, universally-fatal childhood brain cancer known as diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma or DIPG — by targeting tumor cells in an exclusive manner that reduces life-threatening side effects (such as off-target toxicities and cytokine release syndrome). The team, led by Carl Novina, MD, PhD, and Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, calls their approach “small molecule CAR T-cell therapy.”

Their plan is to optimize the ability for CAR T-cell therapies, which use a patient’s genetically modified T cells to combat cancer, to more specifically kill tumor cells without setting off an immune response “storm” known as cytokine release syndrome. The key ingredient is a unique small molecule that greatly enhances the specificity of the tumor targeting component of the therapy.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Science Seen: New microscope reveals biological life as you’ve never seen it before

Various images of cells captured by a new microscope reported in Science
A new microscope allows us to see how cells behave in 3D and real time inside living organisms.

Astronomers developed a “guide star” adaptive optics technique to obtain the most crystal-clear and precise telescopic images of distant galaxies, stars and planets. Now a team of scientists, led by Nobel laureate Eric Betzig, PhD, are borrowing the very same trick. They’ve combined it with lattice light-sheet to create a new microscope that’s able to capture real-time, incredibly detailed and accurate images, along with three-dimensional videos of biology on the cellular and sub-cellular level.

The work — a collaboration between researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School —  is detailed in a new paper just published in Science.

“For the first time, we are seeing life itself at all levels inside whole, living organisms,” said Tom Kirchhausen, PhD, co-author on the new study, who is a senior investigator in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of cell biology and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

“Every time we’ve done an experiment with this microscope, we’ve observed something novel — and generated new ideas and hypotheses to test,” Kirchhausen said in a news story by HMS. “It can be used to study almost any problem in a biological system or organism I can think of.”

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

News Note: A fresh perspective on RNA with big implications for drug development 

RNA-based drugs are the future of therapeuticsRibonucleic acid, or RNA, has long been underappreciated for its role in gene expression. Until recent years, RNA has been thought of merely as a messenger, shuttling DNA’s instructions to the genetic machinery that synthesizes proteins.

But new discoveries of RNA functions, modifications and its ability to transcribe sections of the genome that were previously considered “junk DNA” has led to the discovery of a huge number of new druggable targets.

These new insights into RNA’s complex purposes have largely been uncovered through ever-increasingly sensitive and affordable sequencing methods. As a result, RNA-based drugs now stand to greatly extend our ability to treat diseases beyond the scope of what’s possible with small molecules and biologics.

Although several RND-based drug approaches have already been established, some barriers still prevent these strategies from working broadly. In a review paper for Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Judy Lieberman, MD, PhD, of the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine of Boston Children’s Hospital, lays out where RNA-based drug development currently stands.

Lieberman, who has helped pioneer the RNA-based drug revolution herself, was the first scientist to show in an animal disease model that small, double-stranded RNAs could be used as drugs and leveraged to knock down genes in cells.

Read Lieberman’s review: “Tapping the RNA world for therapeutics.”

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

Zeroing in on the fetal-to-adult hemoglobin switch and a new way to combat sickle cell disease

Normal red blood cell vs. sickle-shaped blood cell, which is found in sickle cell disease
Normal red blood cell vs. sickle-shaped blood cell.

It’s been known for more than 40 years that in rare individuals, lingering production of the fetal form of hemoglobin — the oxygen-transporting protein found in red blood cells — can reduce the severity of certain inherited blood disorders, most notably sickle cell disease and thalassemia. Typically, however, a protein called BCL11A switches off fetal hemoglobin production past infancy, but exactly how this happens has not been well understood until now.

In a new paper in Cell, researchers at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center have revealed how BCL11A controls the switch in the body’s production of fetal hemoglobin to adult hemoglobin. It does so by binding to a DNA sequence — made up of the bases T-G-A-C-C-A — that lies just in front of the fetal hemoglobin genes.

Another approach to curing sickle cell disease is already being evaluated in a new clinical trial at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. The novel gene therapy restores fetal hemoglobin production by genetically suppressing BCL11A, which prevents it from blocking fetal hemoglobin production. Learn more.

“Genetically modifying this TGACCA segment could be another possible strategy to cure sickle cell disease by blocking BCL11A’s ability to bind to this DNA site and switch off fetal hemoglobin production,” says Stuart Orkin, MD, senior author on the study.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment

The softer the nanoparticle, the better the drug delivery to tumors

Nanolipogels, pictured here, are a promising drug delivery system
Nanolipogels of different stiffness, as seen through a transmission electron microscope. Credit: Moses lab/Boston Children’s Hospital.

For the first time, scientists have shown that the elasticity of nanoparticles can affect how cells take them up in ways that can significantly improve drug delivery to tumors.

A team of Boston Children’s Hospital researchers led by Marsha A. Moses, PhD, who directs the Vascular Biology Program, created a novel nanolipogel-based drug delivery system that allowed the team to investigate the exclusive role of nanoparticle elasticity on the mechanisms of cell entry.

Their findings — that softer nanolipogels more efficiently enter cells using a different internalization pathway than their stiffer counterparts — were recently published in Nature Communications.

Read Full Story | Leave a Comment