Author: Nancy Fliesler

Visit our new blog, Discoveries

Boston Children’s Hospital’s science stories are getting a new home. To keep up with the latest research at Boston Children’s Hospital, you can now visit our new all-hospital hub, Discoveries, and click the “Research” tab.

The new site will also keep you up to date on clinical news, patient stories, parenting tips, our favorite photos and videos and community happenings.

We hope you’ll bookmark Discoveries and check in often. In the meantime, the Vector blog will remain online as an archive for research stories from April 2019 and earlier.

Visit Discoveries.childrenshospital.org

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How scratching may prime children with eczema for food allergy and anaphylaxis

scratching one's eczema can trigger a series of events leading to food allergy
PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK

Eczema, a chronic itchy inflammatory skin disease, affects about 15 percent of U.S. children. It’s a strong risk factor for food allergies — more than half of children with eczema are allergic to one or more foods — and most people with food allergy have eczema. But the connection between the two hasn’t been clear. New research in a mouse model demonstrates, for the first time, that scratching the skin promotes allergic reactions to foods, including anaphylaxis.

The study, led by Raif Geha, MD, and Manuel Leyva-Castillo, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital, also teases out the complex web of cellular signals that elicit scratching’s dangerous effects.

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Inhaled hydrogen could protect the brain during heart-lung bypass

hydrogen gas
ILLUSTRATION: ELENA HARTLEY / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL

Newborns with life-threatening congenital heart disease often undergo open-heart surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass, which carries a risk of damaging the brain. Critically ill newborns who are placed on ECMO are at even higher risk for brain injury.  Hypothermia, or cooling the body, can improve neurologic outcomes, but has limitations.

A new study in a large animal model suggests that adding a dash of hydrogen to the usual mix of respiratory gases could further protect babies’ brains.

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A first in medical robotics: Autonomous navigation inside the body

illustration of an autonomous medical robot advancing to the site of a leaky heart valve
A self-driving robotic catheter, inserted at the base of the heart, arrives at a leaky valve. ILLUSTRATION: RANDAL MCKENZIE

Surgeons have used robots operated by joysticks for more than a decade, and teams have shown that tiny robots can be steered through the body by external forces such as magnetism. Now, a paper in Science Robotics describes a robotic catheter that can navigate autonomously — the surgical equivalent of a self-driving car.

Bioengineers at Boston Children’s Hospital demonstrated a robotic catheter that found its way along the walls of a beating, blood-filled heart to a leaky valve in an animal model, without a surgeon’s involvement.

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Protecting damaged hearts with microRNAs

microRNAs facilitate cardiac regeneration after a heart attack
New work advances the possibility of regenerating cardiac tissue after a heart attack. (PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK)

Once the heart is fully formed, the cells that make up heart muscle, known as cardiomyocytes, have very limited ability to reproduce themselves. After a heart attack, cardiomyocytes die off; unable to make new ones, the heart instead forms scar tissue. Over time, this can set people up for heart failure.

New work published last week in Nature Communications advances the possibility of reviving the heart’s regenerative capacities using microRNAs — small molecules that regulate gene function and are abundant in developing hearts.

In 2013, Da-Zhi Wang, PhD, a cardiology researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatrics of Harvard Medical School, identified a family of microRNAs called miR-17-92 that regulates proliferation of cardiomyocytes. In new work, his team shows two family members, miR-19a and miR-19b, to be particularly potent and potentially good candidates for treating heart attack.

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EEG patterns diverge in babies of stressed mothers

Study of newborn EEG and maternal stress
A study in JAMA Pediatrics assessed new mothers’ stress levels and EEG patterns in their 2-month-old babies. Such patterns could help flag infants at risk.(PHOTO: EMILY REILLY / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

Does exposure to stress early in life affect a baby’s brain development, and is there a way to single out babies who might benefit from early intervention? A two-center study led by Boston Children’s Hospital, published today in JAMA Pediatrics, used brain EEGs to begin to get at these questions in an objectively measurable way. It found that infants whose mothers reported high levels of stress have a distinct pattern of brain activity as measured by EEG — at only 2 months of age.

“The EEG has been found to be exquisitely sensitive to perturbations in the environment, and thus we are not entirely surprised to see an association between stress in a mother’s life and her infant’s brain activity,” says Charles Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital and the study’s senior investigator. “What we were surprised by, in part, was how early in life we see this association.”

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‘Nanobodies’ from alpacas could help bring CAR T-cell therapy to solid tumors

These alpacas produce the unusually small antibodies (nanobodies) used in a new form of CAR T-cell therapy
Like other alpacas, as well as camels and llamas, Bryson (left) and Sanchez produce unusually small antibodies that could have a role in cancer immunotherapy. (PHOTO COURTESY HIDDE PLOEGH / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

In 1989, two undergraduate students at the Free University of Brussels were asked to test frozen blood serum from camels, and stumbled on a previously unknown kind of antibody. It was a miniaturized version of a human antibody, made up only of two heavy protein chains, rather than two light and two heavy chains. As they eventually reported, the antibodies’ presence was confirmed not only in camels, but also in llamas and alpacas.

Fast forward 30 years. In the journal PNAS this week, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and MIT show that these mini-antibodies, shrunk further to create so-called nanobodies, may help solve a problem in the cancer field: making CAR T-cell therapies work in solid tumors.

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More efficient gene editing for blood stem cells could ease hemoglobin disorders

A new CRISPR strategy overcomes prior technical challenges. IMAGE: NANCY FLIESLER / ADOBE STOCK

The ability to edit genes in patients’ blood stem cells — which produce red blood cells, platelets, immune cells and more — offers the potential to cure many genetic blood disorders. If all goes well, the corrected cells engraft in the bone marrow and produce healthy, properly functioning blood cells… forever.

But scientists have had difficulty introducing edits into blood stem cells. The efficiency and specificity of the edits and their stability once the cells engraft in the bone marrow have been variable.

A new approach, described this week in Nature Medicine and in January in the journal Blood, overcomes prior technical challenges, improving the efficiency, targeting and durability of the edits. Researchers at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and the University of Massachusetts Medical School successfully applied the technique to two common blood diseases — sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia — involving mutations in the gene for beta globin protein.

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Dually-targeted liposomes curb triple-negative breast cancer, metastases in mice

dual targeting for triple-negative breast cancer
(IMAGE: ADOBE STOCK)

Some 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancers are triple-negative, meaning they lack receptors for estrogen, progesterone and human epidermal growth factor type 2. They have the worst prognosis of all breast cancers and very limited treatment options. Finding a treatment that distinguishes between cancer cells and normal cells has been especially challenging.

A novel precision medicine strategy described today in Science Advances offers an intriguing ray of hope. Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, with bioengineers at the City College of New York (CCNY), showed that dually-targeted, antibody-guided nanoparticles, loaded with an existing chemotherapy drug, markedly improved tumor targeting, decreased tumor and metastatic growth and dramatically improved survival in a mouse model of triple-negative breast cancer. There were no observable side effects.

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The threat from mosquito-borne diseases: Forecasting mosquitoes’ global spread

Aedes albopictus
Aedes albopictus (ADOBE STOCK)

Outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses like yellow fever, dengue, Zika and chikungunya are rising around the world. Climate change has created conditions favorable to mosquitoes’ spread, but so have human travel and migration and accelerating urbanization, creating new mini-habitats for mosquitoes.

In Nature Microbiology yesterday, a large group of international collaborators combined these factors into prediction models that offer insight into the recent spread of two key disease-spreading mosquitoes — Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. The models forecast that by 2050, 49 percent of the world’s population will live in places where these species are established if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates.

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