Stories about: Diagnostics

Elusive epilepsy mutations begin to yield up their secrets

mosaic epilepsy mutations concept
Fawn Gracey illustration

Anti-seizure drugs don’t work in about a third of people with epilepsy. But for people with focal epilepsy, whose seizures originate in a discrete area of the brain, surgery is sometimes an option. The diseased brain tissue that’s removed also offers a rare opportunity to discover epilepsy-related genes.

Many mutations causing epilepsy have been discovered by testing DNA taken from the blood. But it’s becoming clear that not all epilepsy mutations show up on blood tests. So-called somatic mutations can arise directly in tissues like the brain during early prenatal development. Even within the brain, these mutations may affect only a fraction of the cells — those descended from the original mutated cell. This can create a “mosaic” pattern, with affected and unaffected cells sometimes intermingling.

One of the first such mutations to be described, by Ann Poduri, MD, MPH, and colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2012, was in Dante, a young boy who was having relentless daily seizures. The entire right side of Dante’s brain was malformed and enlarged, and he underwent a drastic operation, hemispherectomy, to remove it. Only later, studying brain samples from Dante and similar children, did Poduri find the genetic cause: a mutation in the gene AKT3. It affected only about a third of Dante’s brain cells. 

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How well do gluten-free diets eliminate gluten, and is home gluten testing a good thing?

gluten testing could help predict intestinal health in patients with celiac disease

For patients with celiac disease, following a gluten-free diet is complicated and often challenging.

“Our patients are navigating a gluten-free diet without any feedback to guide them,” says Jocelyn Silvester, MD, PhD, director of research at the Celiac Disease Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Symptoms are not a reliable indicator of gluten exposure. Many patients may not have any symptoms at all.”

For clinicians, assessing how well patients are doing on a gluten-free diet can be equally difficult. “There are no good measures of how well the gluten-free-diet is working or how well patients are following the diet,” Silvester says.

Moreover, tolerance to gluten can vary in celiac disease. Some children have symptoms despite being (apparently) on a gluten-free diet. Others have no symptoms after a gluten exposure, yet show severe atrophy of the nutrient-absorbing villi on intestinal biopsy. Villous atrophy poses a risk for complications, such as poor growth, anemia and osteoporosis.

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Diagnosing autism in infants? EEG algorithms make accurate predictions

autism EEGs
EEG nets are easily slipped over an infant’s head and cause no discomfort. (Credit: Nelson Lab)

The earlier autism can be diagnosed, the more effective interventions typically are. But the signs are often subtle or can be misinterpreted at young ages. As a result, many children aren’t diagnosed until age 2 or even older. Now, a study shows that electroencephalograms (EEGs), which measure the brain’s electrical activity, can accurately predict or rule out autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in babies as young as 3 months old. It appears today in Scientific Reports.

The beauty of EEG is that it’s already used in many pediatric neurology or developmental pediatric settings. “EEGs are low-cost, non-invasive and relatively easy to incorporate into well-baby checkups,” says study co-author Charles Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Their reliability in predicting whether a child will develop autism raises the possibility of intervening very early, well before clear behavioral symptoms emerge.”

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Six technologies we backed in 2017

Boston Children's Hospital technology

Boston Children’s Hospital’s Technology Development Fund (TDF) to designed to transform early-stage academic technologies into validated, high-impact opportunities for licensees and investors. Since 2009, the hospital has committed $7.6 million to support 76 promising technologies, from therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and vaccines to regenerative medicine and healthcare IT projects. The TDF also assists with strategic planning, intellectual property protection, regulatory requirements and business models. Investigators can access mentors, product development experts and technical support through a network of contract research organizations, development partners and industry advisors.

Eight startup companies have spun out since TDF’s creation, receiving $82.4 million in seed funding. They include Affinivax, a vaccine company started with $4 million from the Gates Foundation, and Epidemico, a population health-tracking company acquired by Booz Allen Hamilton. TDF has also launched more than 20 partnerships, received $26 million in follow-on government and foundation funding and generated $4.45 million in licensing revenue.

Here are the projects TDF awarded in 2017, with grants totaling $650,000:

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Science and medicine in 2018: What’s the forecast?

2018 predictions for biomedicine

Vector consulted its many informants to find out which way the wind will blow in 2018. Here are their predictions for what to expect in genetics, stem cell research, immunology and more.

GENETICS

Gene-based therapies mature

We will continue to see successes in 2018 reflecting the maturation of gene therapy as a viable, generalizable platform for curing many rare diseases. Also, we will see exciting new applications of other maturing platforms, like CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing and oligonucleotide therapies for neurologic diseases, building on the success of nusinersen for spinal muscular atrophy.

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2017 pediatric biomedical advances at Boston Children’s Hospital: Our top 10 picks

New tools and technologies fueled biomedicine to great heights in 2017. Here are just a few of our top picks. All are great examples of research informing better care for children (and adults).

1. Gene therapy arrives

(Katherine C. Cohen)

In 2017, gene therapy solidly shed the stigma of Jesse Gelsinger’s 1999 death with the development of safer protocols and delivery vectors. Though each disease must navigate its own technical and regulatory path to gene therapy, the number of clinical trials is mounting worldwide, with seven gene therapy trials now recruiting at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. In August, the first gene therapy won FDA approval: CAR T-cell therapy for pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

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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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Why is one twin sometimes smaller than the other? The answer may lie in the placenta

placental oxygen transport may help determine fetal size

When a baby is born small, it’s often chalked up to genetics or to maternal risk factors like poor nutrition or smoking. A study of twin pregnancies, published today in Scientific Reports, finds another factor that can be measured prentally: slower transport of oxygen from mother to baby across the placenta.

The study, part of the NIH-funded Human Placenta Project, is the first to make a direct connection between placental oxygen transport and birth outcomes. It relies on a new, noninvasive technique called Blood-Oxygenation-Level-Dependent (BOLD) MRI. Developed by P. Ellen Grant, MD, director of the Fetal-Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and Elfar Adalsteinsson, PhD at MIT, it maps oxygen delivery across the placenta in real time.

“Until now, we had no way to look at regional placental function in vivo,” says Grant.

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Webchat to highlight what’s new in pediatric brain tumors

pediatric brain tumors, child MRI

Last September, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that brain tumors have overtaken the much more common leukemia as the leading cause of death from pediatric cancer. Although progress has been made and the promise of more progress is on the horizon, the cure rate for childhood brain tumors lags behind a number of other pediatric cancers.

As pediatric neuro-oncologist Peter Manley, MD, of Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center told Live Science, new research on cancer genomics “is so impressive that my feeling is that we will continue to see a decline in deaths.”

To mark Brain Tumor Awareness Month, Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, clinical director of the Brain Tumor Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s, will host a webchat on Monday, May 22 (3:30 p.m. ET). The live chat will highlight the latest research and treatments for pediatric brain tumors. Here’s a look back at some recent developments:

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Fast brain waves: A better biomarker for epilepsy

EEG and MEG detection of HFOs, fast brain waves associated with epilepsy
Localization of fast brain waves, called HFOs, with scalp EEG (left) and MEG (right). HFOs present a new biomarker for areas of the brain responsible for epileptic seizures.

In the U.S., about one in 100 people have some form of epilepsy. A third of those people have seizures that cannot be controlled with drugs, eventually requiring surgery to remove the area of their brain tissue that is triggering seizure activity.

“If you can identify and surgically remove the entire epileptogenic zone, you will have a patient who is seizure-free,” says Christos Papadelis, PhD, who leads the Boston Children’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory in the Division of Newborn Medicine and is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Even experts in this field were skeptical for years about the non-invasive detection of HFOs. But now, thanks to our study and other researchers’ work, these people are changing their minds. At present, however, these surgeries are not always successful. Current diagnostics lack the ability to determine precisely which parts of an individual’s brain are inducing his or her seizures, called the epileptogenic zone. In addition, robust biomarkers for the epileptogenic zone have been poorly established.

But now, a team at Boston Children’s Hospital is doing research to improve pre-surgical pinpointing of the brain’s epileptogenic zone. They are using a newly-established biomarker for epilepsy — fast brain waves called high-frequency oscillations (HFOs) — that can be detected non-invasively using scalp electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG).

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