Stories about: Science

50-year-old mystery solved — with clues to making more red blood cells

why steroids boost red blood cell production
Red blood cells produced by a single progenitor cell (IMAGE COURTESY HOJUN LI / DANA-FARBER/BOSTON CHILDREN’S VIA CELL PRESS)

Back in the 1950s, doctors began using steroids to treat Diamond-Blackfan anemia, or DBA, a severe condition in which patients cannot make enough red blood cells. There was no real rationale for using steroids, but there was no other good option, aside from regular transfusions. At the time, steroids were being thrown at seemingly everything.

But steroids worked in most patients, at least for a time — at the expense of serious side effects such as weight gain, bone loss, hypertension, diabetes and an increased risk of infections. A new study published yesterday in Developmental Cell finally explains why steroids work — and could provide a foothold for developing safer and better treatments for DBA. It could even pave the way to treatments for other types of bone marrow failure.

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Using mitochondrial DNA to trace cells’ family trees

tracing cell family relationships with mitochondrial DNA
(IMAGE: ADOBE STOCK)

Second in a two-part series on mitochondria. See part 1.

Recent advances in single-cell genomics have made it possible to study individual cells and learn how they develop into specialized cells. However, we have only limited information on cells’ origins and how they’re related to the other cells around them.

Meanwhile, efforts to understand more about how cells differentiate and divide have looked at whole cell categories at a time, offering little knowledge of individual cells.

“It’s like looking at the statistics for a college — you can determine what the average student is like, but you have no idea what any one individual student is doing,” says Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, a hematologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Learning about cellular relationships is critical — it can help us understand how many stem cells give rise to any tissue in our body, what cell types cancers emerge from, or how some cells can be dysfunctional in particular diseases.”

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EEG data classify ‘autism’ into two distinct groups

[IMAGES FROM BMC NEUROLOGY (DOI 10.1186/s12883-019-1254-1)]

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-5) established a single diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that includes Asperger’s syndrome, formerly considered a separate condition. The change was meant to eliminate diagnostic ambiguities, but it has encouraged schools to take a “one size fits all” approach, putting all children with autistic features in the same classroom.

This concerns many parents and professionals. “Typically, such classrooms focus on the more severely impaired, often non-verbally communicative children without helping the higher functioning children, such as those with Asperger’s,” says Heidelise Als, PhD, a psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Als and her co-investigator Frank Duffy, MD, a neurologist at Boston Children’s, decided to take an unbiased look at children diagnosed with autism, using data from their EEGs. In a paper in BMC Neurology, they conclude that autism is not a single entity, but falls into two distinct clusters — ripe for additional investigation.

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Eavesdropping on mitochondria, tissue by tissue

mitochondria
(IMAGE: ADOBE STOCK)

First in a two-part series on mitochondria. See part 2.

Mitochondria are essential to life: they produce energy, synthesize building blocks critical to cell function and help regulate cellular activity, including programmed cell death. Mitochondrial diseases can cause severe metabolic disorders in children and dysfunctional mitochondria are thought to play a role in cancer, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and more.

A new research tool offers an unprecedented glimpse at the workings of these tiny, dynamic organelles, and could aid in the study of mitochondrial dysfunction.

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Light-activated nanoparticles could avoid painful eye injections for ‘wet’ macular degeneration

Could intravitreal injections become a thing of the past?
(PHOTO: ZKALILA1998 / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

There are two standard treatments for “wet” age-related macular degeneration (AMD), in which abnormal, leaky blood vessels in the back of the eye lead to fluid buildup and vision loss. The first, injection of medication directly into the eye, can be painful and can cause inflammation, infection and detachment of the retina. The second, ablation therapy, uses lasers to destroy the leaky blood vessels. It, too, is unpleasant to undergo, and the lasers can also destroy surrounding healthy tissue, causing further vision loss.

In today’s Nature Communications, the lab of Daniel Kohane, MD, PhD, provides proof-of-concept of a more tolerable alternative: tiny, drug-carrying nanoparticles that can be injected intravenously, but deliver medication only to the eye.

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How the antidepressant ketamine rapidly awakens the brain, and why its effects vary more in women

(CREDIT: NATHALIE PICARD / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

In small doses, the anesthetic ketamine is a mildly hallucinogenic party drug known as “Special K.” In even smaller doses, ketamine relieves depression — abruptly and sometimes dramatically, steering some people away from suicidal thoughts. Studies indicate that ketamine works in 60 to 70 percent of people not helped by slower-acting SSRIs, the usual drugs for depression.

Two ketamine-like drugs are in the clinical pipeline, and, as of this week, one appears close to FDA approval. With no significant new antidepressant in more than 30 years, anticipation is high. Yet no one has pinned down how low-dose ketamine works. Studies have implicated various brain neurotransmitters and their receptors — serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, GABA receptors, opioid receptors — but findings have been contradictory.

“We felt it was time to figure this out once and for all,” says neuroscientist Takao Hensch, PhD.

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Blood stem cell transplants from any donor, without toxicity?

could stem cell transplants be made nontoxic?
(ADOBE STOCK)

Many blood disorders, immune disorders and metabolic disorders can be cured with a transplant of hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells, also known as bone marrow transplant. But patients must first receive high-dose, whole-body chemotherapy and/or radiation to deplete their own defective stem cells, providing space for the donor cells to engraft. These “conditioning” regimens are highly toxic: they wipe out the immune system, raising infection risk, and can cause anemia, infertility, other organ damage and cancers. And when the donor isn’t an exact match, patients’ immune systems must be suppressed for prolonged periods to prevent rejection.

As a result, most patients either don’t receive a transplant or must endure serious side effects. But if two new studies bear out in clinical trials, a far gentler conditioning treatment could enable stem-cell transplants for a much wider range of disorders, even possibly from unmatched donors.

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Can we mass-produce platelets in the lab?

Lab-grown platelets could someday be given to patients
Activated platelets (IMAGE: ADOBE STOCK)

Most of us have somewhere around a trillion tiny platelets zooming around our bloodstreams. Joseph Italiano, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Vascular Biology Program, calls them the “Swiss Army knives of the blood.” In addition to their key role in clotting, platelets are important in immunity, wound healing, chemical delivery, blood vessel development and more.

At healthcare facilities, platelets are in constant demand for patients with blood diseases, or those receiving radiation or chemotherapy for cancer. But unlike other blood products, platelets can’t be stored for more than a few days. If there’s a snowstorm or other emergency preventing donors from giving platelets, a hospital can easily run out. So researchers have been trying to make platelets in a lab setting.

Two teams at Boston Children’s Hospital are tackling the problem in slightly different ways.

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Natural killer cells: A new angle on neuropathic pain

natural killer cells, peripheral nerve damage and neuropathic pain
Like an immune cleanup crew, natural killer cells (green) infiltrate a damaged axon. (IMAGE: ALEXANDER DAVIES / SEOUL NATIONAL UNIVERSITY AND UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD)

Scientists have known since the 1800s what happens to a totally crushed peripheral nerve in animals: the damaged axons are broken down in a process called Wallerian degeneration, allowing healthy ones to regrow. But humans rarely suffer complete axonal damage. Instead, axons tend to be partially damaged, causing neuropathic pain — a difficult-to-treat, chronic pain associated with nerve trauma, chemotherapy and diabetes.

The lab of Michael Costigan, PhD, in Boston Children’s Hospital’s F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center is studying how the body’s immune system breaks down these damaged nerves. Their latest research, published today in Cell, may change our understanding of neuropathic pain and how to treat it.

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Drug repurposing and DNA mining: The hunt for new endometriosis treatments

endometriosis researchers Michael Rogers and Danielle Peterse
Michael Rogers and Daniëlle Peterse (PHOTO: MICHAEL GODERRE/BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

Endometriosis is a common gynecological condition that may affect more than 1 in 10 reproductive-age women. Yet, there’s very little research into the disease and limited options for treatment. A team in the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital is trying to change that.

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