Stories about: People

Prescriptions for accelerating neuroscience translation: Q&A with Mustafa Sahin, MD, PhD

Mustafa Sahin Translational Neuroscience CenterMustafa Sahin, MD, PhD, a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, directs the Translational Neuroscience Center, which he founded several years ago to accelerate neuroscience research to the clinic. He also directs the hospital’s Translational Research Program. In this interview with Boston Children’s Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO), Sahin talks about his motivations as a clinician-scientist and how he works with industry partners to move discoveries forward.

What drives you as a scientist? 

What drives me as a scientist has changed over the course of my career. It was my fascination with experimentation that first got me interested in biology. In high school, I took vials of fruit flies to a radiation oncology department and tested the effects of radiation on the mutation rate. When I came to the U.S. to study biochemistry in college, I was drawn to the mysteries of the brain. While my PhD and postdoctoral work continued on very fundamental questions about how neurons connect to each other, advances in genetics and neuroscience allowed me to bring rigorous basic science approaches to clinical questions. So more and more, my science is driven by a need to bring treatments to the patients I see in the clinic. Fortunately, this is no longer a long-term, aspirational goal, but something within reach in my career.

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A breakthrough in our understanding of how red blood cells develop

Artist's rendering of red blood cells
Red blood cells.

By taking a deep dive into the molecular underpinnings of Diamond-Blackfan anemia, scientists have made a new discovery about what drives the development of mature red blood cells from the earliest form of blood cells, called hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells.

For the first time, cellular machines called ribosomes — which create proteins in every cell of the body — have been linked to blood stem cell differentiation. The findings, published today in Cell, have revealed a potential new therapeutic pathway to treat Diamond-Blackfan anemia. They also cap off a research effort at Boston Children’s Hospital spanning nearly 80 years and several generations of scientists.

Diamond-Blackfan anemia — a severe, rare, congenital blood disorder — was first described in 1938 by Louis Diamond, MD, and Kenneth Blackfan, MD, of Boston Children’s. The disorder impairs red blood cell production, impacting delivery of oxygen throughout the body and causing anemia. Forty years ago, David Nathan, MD, of Boston Children’s determined that the disorder specifically affects the way blood stem cells become mature red blood cells.

Then, nearly 30 years ago, Stuart Orkin, MD, also of Boston Children’s, identified a protein called GATA1 as being a key factor in the production of hemoglobin, the essential protein in red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen. Interestingly, in more recent years, genetic analysis has revealed that some patients with Diamond-Blackfan have mutations that block normal GATA1 production.

Now, the final pieces of the puzzle — what causes Diamond-Blackfan anemia on a molecular level and how exactly ribosomes and GATA1 are involved — have finally been solved by another member of the Boston Children’s scientific community, Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, senior author of the new Cell paper.

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This autoimmune awareness month, meet Boston scientists who are pushing the envelope in autoimmune research

“Red” and “green” B cells emerge from the pack as best producers of the potent autoantibodies in a mouse model of the autoimmune disease known as lupus.
In a mouse model of lupus, colorized red and green B cells outdo their blue, yellow and aqua competitors. Each color represents a different B cell clone. The proliferation of red and green B cells demonstrates that these clones have emerged as the best producers of autoantibodies. Credit: Michael Carroll lab (Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School)

The basic biological mechanisms that underpin autoimmune disorders are finally coming to light. Researchers in Boston’s Longwood medical area — a neighborhood where the streets are flanked by hospitals, research institutions and academic centers — are setting the stage for a new wave of future therapies that can prevent, reduce or even reverse symptoms of disease.

Inside the lab of Michael Carroll, PhD, scientists are working to understand how and why immune cells start to attack the body’s own tissues; it turns out the immune system’s B cells compete with each other in true Darwinian fashion. On the way to this discovery, the lab has flushed out new potential drug targets that could ease autoimmune symptoms — or stop them entirely — by “resetting” the body’s tolerance to itself.

Carroll’s team has also drawn some of the first links between chronic inflammation, synapse loss and neuropsychiatric disease in lupus.

The implications for a link between inflammation and synapse loss go beyond lupus because inflammation underpins so many diseases and conditions, ranging from Alzheimer’s to viral infection and even to to chronic stress. In which case, are we all losing synapses to some varying degree? Carroll plans to find out.

Meanwhile, Sun Hur, PhD, and members of her lab are digging deep on a genetic variant and its link to pediatric inflammatory autoimmune disorders like Aicardi-Goutieres syndrome.

“We’ve found that chronic inflammation and autoinflammatory disorders can originate from genetic mutations to MDA5 that cause it to misrecognize ‘self’ as ‘non-self,’ essentially launching the immune system into self-attack mode,” said Hur.

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Snaps from the lab: From gene discovery to gene therapy for one rare disease

Will Ward’s birthday falls on Rare Disease Day (Feb. 28). That’s an interesting coincidence because he has a rare disease: X-linked myotubular myopathy (MTM), a rare, muscle-weakening disease that affects only boys. Originally on Snapchat, this video captures the Ward family’s recent visit to the lab of Alan Beggs, PhD to learn more about MTM research.

Beggs, director of the Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research at Boston Children’s Hospital, has known Will since he was a newborn in intensive care. In this lab walk-though you’ll see a freezer filled with muscle samples, stored in liquid nitrogen; muscle tissue under a microscope; gene sequencing to identify mutations causing MTM and other congenital myopathies and a testing station to measure muscle function in samples taken from animal models.

Beggs’s work, which began more than 20 years ago, led to pivotal studies in male Labrador retrievers who happen to have the same mutation and are born with a canine form of MTM. By adding back a healthy copy of the gene, Beggs’s collaborators got the dogs back on their feet running around again. (Read about Nibs, a female MTM carrier whose descendants took part in these studies.)

Based on the canine results, a clinical trial is now testing gene therapy in boys under the age of 5 with MTM. The phase I/II trial aims to enroll 12 boys and measure their respiratory and motor function and muscle structure after being dosed with a vector carrying a corrected MTM gene. In the meantime, observational and retrospective studies are characterizing the natural history of boys with MTM.

Learn more about the Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research.

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News Note: Norovirus outbreak threatens the Olympics

The HealthMap team at Boston Children's is currently tracking norovirus at the Olympics
The Computational Epidemiology Team at Boston Children’s Hospital tracks online, informal sources for disease outbreak monitoring and real-time surveillance of emerging public health threats through a platform called HealthMap. This is an image of what their surveillance dashboard is currently tracking (Feb. 15, 2018) in South Korea. Visit http://www.healthmap.org/en/ for more.

The 2018 Winter Olympics have brought nearly 3,000 delegates from 206 countries together in PyeongChang, South Korea. But just a week after kicking off on February 8, the games and its attendees are already being interrupted by a fast-spreading norovirus outbreak.

Norovirus is an extremely infectious disease transmitted through food, water or by touching a contaminated surface. Infection causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, which can lead to symptoms including stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

In PyeongChang, there have already been 199 confirmed cases of norovirus — many of those sickened have been security guards hired for the games. Due to severe gastrointestinal symptoms, 41 guards have been hospitalized and more than 1,200 were placed in quarantine. 

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Sickle cell gene therapy to boost fetal hemoglobin: A 70-year timeline of discovery

sickled cells occluding a blood vessel
Sickled cells occluding a blood vessel. (Image: Elena Hartley)

Boston Children’s Hospital is now enrolling patients age 3 to 35 in a clinical trial of gene therapy for sickle cell disease. Based on technology developed its own labs, it differs from other gene therapy approaches by having a two-pronged action. It represses production of the mutated beta hemoglobin that causes red blood cells to form the stiff “sickle” shapes that block up blood vessels. It also increases production of the fetal form of hemoglobin, which people normally stop making after birth.

Fetal hemoglobin doesn’t sickle and works fine for oxygen transport. The gene therapy being tested now restores fetal hemoglobin production by turning “off” a silencing gene called BCH11A.

BCL11A represses fetal hemoglobin and also activates beta hemoglobin, which is affected by the sickle-cell mutation,” David Williams, MD, the trial’s principal investigator, told Vector last year. Williams is also president of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “So when you knock BCL11A down, you simultaneously increase fetal hemoglobin and repress sickling hemoglobin, which is why we think this is the best approach to gene therapy in this disease.”

The therapy is the product of multiple discoveries, the first dating back 70 years. Click selected images below to enlarge.

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What’s trending in neurological drug development?

Advanced MRI scans of the brain showing neural network connections
Credit: Boston Children’s Hospital

Momentum has been growing in the field of neuroscience in our ability to understand and treat various disorders affecting the brain, central nervous system, neuromuscular network and more. So what are the key ways that researchers and drug industry collaborators are discovering new therapies for preventing or reversing neurological disease?

Experts weighed in recently to offer their insights.

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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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Personalized care model enhances preterm babies’ development

NICU baby with his mother
Christian, born at 26 weeks gestation, has lived in the NICU since May. (Photos: Katherine C. Cohen, unless otherwise noted)

November 17, 2017 is World Prematurity Day.

From a cozy, dark and quiet existence, a preterm baby is forced out into a harsh, bright and noisy environment. Instead of being comforted and held securely by their parents, preemies are poked and prodded, hooked up to machines and exposed to jarring sights and smells as their developing brains struggle to realign.

Each year, an estimated 15 million babies around the world — 1 in 10 — are born prematurely. Medical advances enable more of them to live, but often with medical and developmental problems.

Heidelise Als, PhD, director of Neurobehavioral Infant and Child Studies at Boston Children’s Hospital, has worked for more than 30 years to create better outcomes, developing the Newborn Individualized Developmental Care and Assessment Program, or NIDCAP.

The NIDCAP model of care seeks to support the development of fragile newborns and reduce their stress. In a series of studies, Als and colleagues at other hospitals have documented its successes: improvements in lung function, feeding and growth; shorter lengths of stay; a reduction in brain hemorrhage and improved brain function and structure, with brain effects lasting until at least 8 years of age. Benefits have been documented even in medically fragile, very preterm infants and infants with severe intrauterine growth restriction.

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Saving Vanessa part 2: Parent-driven science

DADA2 symptoms can be controlled with medications
Why did Vanessa’s mysterious rheumatologic condition cause her to have a stroke?

Two-year-old Vanessa had survived the unthinkable: two massive cerebral hemorrhages, nine days apart. Katherine Bell and her wife Nancy Mendoza felt immense relief at their daughter’s close call. But they wanted to know more. What had caused Vanessa’s strokes? Would there be more? Was the cause treatable?

The strokes were the culmination of a mysterious illness that had started with a rash. Because of high levels of inflammatory proteins in her blood, Vanessa’s rheumatologists, Pui Lee, MD PhD and Robert Sundel, MD, had given her a provisional, somewhat vague diagnosis of periodic fever syndrome.

“In rheumatology, we have to be comfortable with operating with a lot of unknowns,” Lee says.

But the strokes occurred despite three different anti-inflammatory treatments, which worked only temporarily. Bell, less comfortable with the unknowns, began searching the medical literature.

“It helped me feel calmer,” Bell says. “The more information I have, the less out of control I feel.”

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