Stories about: Science

‘Druggable’ cancer target found in pathway regulating organ size

Inactivating NUAK2 curbs cell proliferation in liver cancer
Reducing cancer proliferation: A small molecule that inactivates NUAK2, part of the Hippo/YAP pathway, reduces the number of cancerous cells in the mouse liver. (WEI-CHIEN YUAN/BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

It’s known that cancer involves unchecked cell growth and that a pathway that regulates the size of organs, known as Hippo, is also involved in cancer. It’s further known that a major player in this pathway, YAP, drives many types of tumors. What’s been lacking is how to turn this knowledge into a practical cancer treatment. In a study published today in Nature Communications, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital identify a target downstream of YAP, called NUAK2, and show that it can readily be inactivated with a small molecule.

“The Hippo pathway, and especially YAP, has been hard to target with drugs,” says senior study author Fernando Camargo, PhD, of Boston Children’s Stem Cell Research program. “This is the first demonstration of a ‘druggable’ molecule that could be targeted in any type of tumor driven by YAP.”

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Low-carb diets make us burn more calories, finds largest, longest feeding trial to date

Low carb diet helps us burn calories faster, supporting the Carbohydrate-Insulin Model of obesity
Supporting the Carbohydrate-Insulin Model of obesity, a new study finds that low-carb diets increase our energy expenditure.

Most people who diet to lose weight regain the pounds within a year or two, in part because the body adapts by slowing down metabolism and burning fewer calories. A new study known as the Framingham State Food Study, or (FS)2, suggests that low-carb diets can help people keep the weight off, showing that eating fewer carbohydrates increases the number of calories burned. The findings, published today in the BMJ, could help make obesity treatment more effective.

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From the ashes of a failed pain drug, potential treatments for autoimmunity and cancer

BH4 pathway - orchestra concept
ORCHESTRATING T-CELL RESPONSES: The BH4 pathway can be quieted with a small-molecule inhibitor to calm T-cell responses in autoimmune disease, or tuned up to activate T cells in cancer. (ILLUSTRATION: TIBOR KULCSAR/IMBA)

In 2013, renowned Boston Children’s Hospital pain researcher Clifford Woolf, MD, PhD, and Kai Johnsson, PhD, his fellow co-founder at Quartet Medicine, believed they held the key to non-narcotic pain relief. Woolf had shown that tetrahydrobioptrin — a protein also known as BH4 — is a primary natural modulator of neuropathic and inflammatory pain sensitivity. Quartet was founded on the premise that inhibiting BH4 production could prevent the progression of acute pain to chronic pain in millions of patients, without threat of addiction or tolerance.

With solid human genetic data and chemical biology, plus $17 million in series A funding, Quartet looked primed for success. But in the summer of 2017, toxicology studies of the company’s lead candidate revealed neurologic side effects. Hope for the promising pain drug cratered, taking Quartet with it.

Now, however, a surprising discovery about BH4 will likely rekindle interest in the once-promising pathway and could have profound implications for treating autoimmunity and cancer. In yesterday’s Nature, Woolf and his team at Boston Children’s Hospital, together with immunologists from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) in Vienna report that BH4 also functions as a kind of immunological thermostat in the body, raising and lowering the activity levels of T cells.

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Fishing for new leads in rare mucosal melanoma

Leonard Zon and Julien Ablain in the zebrafish facility
Leonard Zon and Julien Ablain are finding that zebrafish can tell us a lot about cancer. (PHOTO: SHANE HURLEY/BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

Zebrafish are an emerging power tool in cancer research. They can be engineered to light up when certain genes turn on — capturing the moment when a cancer is initiated. Because they breed so quickly, they lend themselves to rapid, large-scale chemical screening studies, so can help identify tumor promoters and suppressors. Now, as a new study in Science demonstrates, zebrafish can also help scientists dissect the intricate molecular pathways that underlie many cancers, and could help guide treatment strategies — in this case, for mucosal melanoma.

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Could a simple injection fix spina bifida before birth?

Mesenchymal stem cells derived from amniotic fluid (FAUZA LAB / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

Ed. note: This is an update of a post that originally appeared in 2014.

The neural tube is supposed to close during the first month of prenatal development, forming the spinal cord and the brain. In children with spina bifida, it doesn’t close completely, leaving the nerves of the spinal cord exposed and subject to damage. The most common and serious form of spina bifida, myelomeningocele, sets a child up for lifelong disability, causing complications such as hydrocephalus, leg paralysis, and loss of bladder and bowel control.

A growing body of research from Boston Children’s Hospital, though still in animal models, suggests that spina bifida could be repaired at least partially early in pregnancy, through intrauterine injections of a baby’s own cells.

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Creating custom brains from the ground up

building a custom brain
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Scientists studying how genetics impact brain disease have long sought a better experimental model. Cultures of genetically-modified cell lines can reveal some clues to how certain genes influence the development of psychiatric disorders and brain cancers. But such models cannot offer the true-to-form look at brain function that can be provided by genetically-modified mice.

Even then, carefully breeding mice to study how genes impact the brain has several drawbacks. The breeding cycles are lengthy and costly, and the desired gene specificity can only be verified — but not guaranteed — when mouse pups are born.

In today’s Nature, scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital and UC San Francisco describe a new way to create customized mouse models for studying the brain.

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Synapse ‘protection’ signal found; helps to refine brain circuits

a combination of 'eat me' and 'don't eat me' signals fine-tune synapse pruning
New evidence suggests that a ‘yin/yang’ system fine-tunes brain connections and synapse pruning (IMAGE: NANCY FLIESLER/ADOBE STOCK)

The developing brain is constantly forming new connections, or synapses, between nerve cells. Many connections are eventually lost, while others are strengthened. In 2012, Beth Stevens, PhD and her lab at Boston Children’s Hospital showed that microglia, immune cells that live in the brain, prune back unwanted synapses by engulfing or “eating” them. They also identified a set of “eat me” signals required to promote this process: complement proteins, best known for helping the immune system combat infection.

In new work published today in Neuron, Stevens and colleagues reveal the flip side: a “don’t eat me” signal that prevents microglia from pruning useful connections away.

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Earlier treatment may help reverse autism-like behavior in tuberous sclerosis

research in Purkinje cells may help complete the puzzle of autism
(IMAGE: PETER TSAI)

New research on autism has found, in a mouse model, that drug treatment at a young age can reverse social impairments. But the same intervention was not effective at an older age.

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A Manhattan Project for the brain, at age 50

Formation of the IDDRCs in the 1960s launched a Manhattan project for the brain.
Landmark federal legislation in JFK’s final days launched an explosion of neuroscience research. (PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: NANCY FLIESLER/ADOBE STOCK)

On October 30th, 2018, Boston Children’s will be marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of its Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.

As the African-American civil rights movement was flowering in the 1960s, a less visible civil rights movement was dawning. And so was a revolution in science that may outshine that spurred by the U.S. space program.

It was a time when children with what is now called intellectual disability (ID) or developmental disability (DD) were “excused” from school and routinely abandoned to institutions. “Schools” like the Fernald Center in Massachusetts and the Willowbrook State School in New York housed thousands of residents.

Some participated in research, but not the kind you might think. At Willowbrook, children were deliberately infected with hepatitis to test a new treatment. At Fernald, they were deliberately exposed to radiation in an experiment approved by the Atomic Energy Commission. Institutional review boards did not then exist.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy convened a panel to propose a “National Action to Combat Mental Retardation,” at the strong urging of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Three weeks before JFK’s assassination, the first legislation passed. It changed the course of history.

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When neglected children enter adolescence: A cautionary tale about family separation

child neglect / child deprivation
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Many migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S. border, some of them very young, have landed in shelters where they often experience stress, neglect and minimal social and cognitive stimulation. The latest findings of the long-running Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), involving children in Romanian orphanages, tells a cautionary tale about the psychiatric and social risks of long-term deprivation and separation from parents.

BEIP has shown that children reared in very stark institutional settings, with severe social deprivation and neglect, are at risk for cognitive problems, depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But BEIP has also shown that placing children with quality foster families can mitigate some of these effects, if it’s done early.

The new BEIP study, published this week by JAMA Psychiatry, asked what happens to the mental health of institutionalized children as they transition to adolescence. Outcomes at ages 8, 12 and 16 suggest diverging trajectories between children who remained in institutions versus those randomly chosen for placement with carefully vetted foster families.

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